UMSL Professor Eamonn Wall

Eamonn Wall, the Smurfit-Stone Corporation Professor of Irish Studies at UMSL, is the subject of a documentary that will screen Nov. 16 at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

As the name implies, the St. Louis International Film Festival takes a global approach to the 389 films that will screen at theaters throughout St. Louis today through Nov. 23. The documentary “Your Rivers Have Trained You” is no exception; however, its subject, Eamonn Wall, happens to be a member of the University of Missouri–St. Louis community.

Wall is a prominent poet from Ireland and the Smurfit-Stone Corporation Professor of Irish Studies at UMSL.

“Though I was born and raised in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland, St. Louis is my hometown,” Wall said. “It is a thrill to have the documentary shown at SLIFF. The two parts of my world come together.”

Irish filmmaker Paul O’Reilly directed the documentary on the poetry professor. It will screen at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at KDHX’s Larry J. Weir Center for Independent Media, 3524 Washington Ave. in St. Louis. The screening will feature an appearance by O’Reilly and a reading by Wall.

“Paul’s documentary will give people an insight into the places and people of my poems,” Wall said. “It is an intimate and personal film. It shows Co. Wexford in all its beauty too.”

Filmmaker Paul O'Reilly

Filmmaker Paul O’Reilly directed the documentary “Your Rivers Have Trained You,” which focuses on poet Eamonn Wall, a professor at UMSL.

O’Reilly took a break from packing for his St. Louis trip to talk with UMSL Daily about Wall, future projects and anticipation for his first trip to the Gateway City.

What drew you to Eamonn Wall as the subject of your documentary?

In general I’m interested in many art forms: singing, music, poetry, storytelling, comedy, fiction and film. My last documentary was also a portrait, one of a traditional Irish singer named Paddy Berry. Paddy sings songs of place, and those places are areas I recognize as I, like Paddy and Eamonn, am from County Wexford in Ireland. In Eamonn’s poetry I found many of the same traits as I found in Paddy’s folk songs, and Eamonn alludes to the influence of song on him in the film. Also, the imagery in Eamonn’s poetry is vivid, his storytelling is always engaging and his subject matter is often personal. I find this very attractive and the story of an Irish emigrant to America, as told through poetry, is quite unique. Having the chance to film areas both I and Eamonn grew up in, to the backdrop of Eamonn’s voice, was extremely appealing on a personal level, but I always believed that his personal story would have a universal appeal.

Your film touches upon several facets of Eamonn’s life: immigration to New York, poetic discovery, influences, etc. What fascinated you as you learned about Eamonn while making this documentary?

Eamonn is extremely easy to engage with and like. And yet, there is a quiet and confident professionalism behind it all, which I find a great characteristic for any artist to have. I’ve often heard Eamonn introduce and read his work, and we’ve even exchanged a few beers from time to time over the years. But in making the film I felt Eamonn was bravely willing to open up and disclose information that I never knew and hadn’t expected when planning the shoot. In particular, his frankness about growing up in Ireland in the ‘60s was compelling. It is not a unique story, but to hear it told with such clarity and calmness is still chilling. For Eamonn to then compare that Ireland with the Ireland of today was somewhat inversely optimistic, which is refreshing when you live and listen to the daily news in Ireland. Sometimes you need a distant perspective to highlight the good things.

Ireland is known for its poetry. And we’re fortunate to have one of the country’s finest – Eamonn Wall – living in St. Louis and teaching at UMSL. How well known is Eamonn and his work in his native country?

It’s true that Ireland is full of poets. I would say still that “you can’t throw a stone in Ireland without hitting a poet” is probably true! But, for me, and many I know, Eamonn stands head and shoulders above most. Having had several collections published by Salmon Poetry in County Clare, Ireland, a poetry house with worldwide recognition, is testament to his talent and popularity. As Eamonn is a quiet professional, he is often very modest in broadcasting his achievements, but I know that Eamonn has read to packed houses all over Ireland and rubbed shoulders with the best of Irish writers on many occasions. And not many can say that.

Have you ever been to St. Louis, to film the documentary or otherwise?

Unfortunately, no. Due to budget constraints I couldn’t travel to the States for this film. It would have been wonderful to juxtapose the landscapes of Ireland and America more, and use more of Eamonn’s American-based poetry, but as it turned out, having him tell us the story from his home place in Enniscorthy worked well. In saying that, because of how the imagery in this film is slanted mainly towards his Irish-based poetry, there is a sequel to be made where we travel with Eamonn to the places he discovered after immigrating to America, to the backdrop of his American based poems.

We obviously hope for a great turnout for your film screening at SLIFF. But there will inevitably be those who would love to view the documentary but can’t attend the event. Will the film be available for viewing online at some point?

The film is still doing the festival rounds and will continue until next summer I expect. Then we’ll make DVD copies available, as there is a demand for those already – another testament to his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. At that time, we will also consider making it available online, perhaps for a minimal viewing fee.

What’s your next project?

I have a collection of short stories almost ready to go, and am delighted to announce here. I only found out for certain myself yesterday that they will be published by Doire Press, another great west-of-Ireland publisher, next May. So, I’ll be working hard on completing that book and everything that goes with it over the next couple of months. I am investigating the possibility of a sequel to Eamonn’s film. And I have begun a narrative screenplay I hope to push out to producers for consideration in the spring. There’s also the possibility of a short film thrown into the mix! So, thankfully a busy 2015 ahead!

“Your Rivers Have Trained You” is one of two SLIFF films with strong ties to UMSL. “The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ” includes contributions from UMSL faculty members Rita Csapó-Sweet, Barbara Harbach and Jim Richards. Read more about that film in UMSL Daily

Ryan Heinz

Ryan Heinz