Eamonn and Drucilla Wall connect with Irish diaspora ‘Down Under’
At a small café in Sydney, a crowd of people spilled out of the doorway onto the sidewalk.
The café was one of several stops on the husband-and-wife duo’s tour of Australia last year. Eamonn, the Smurfit-Stone Corporation Professor of Irish Studies, and Drucilla, teaching professor of English, spent two weeks giving lectures and readings of their original poetry and essays to Irish-Australian communities in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
“We were waving the UMSL flag and answering a lot of questions about UMSL and St. Louis,” Eamonn said.
The trip was the first of its kind by UMSL faculty and created new connections with Australian writers, poets and scholars, expanding the university’s global reach. According to the Eamonn and Drucilla, it is likely the first such tour by Irish-American scholars.
“It was nice to do something that nobody’s ever done before,” Eamonn said. “It’s surprising it hasn’t happened. The connections between America and Australia are so important, and the Irish are central to both – the histories are quite similar.”
The series, which spanned three states, initially grew from a single engagement in Adelaide. Eamonn applied and was accepted to present a paper at a conference run by the Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand.
The couple reached out to Anne Casey, an Irish poet and journalist residing in Sydney whom they were already acquainted with via their shared publisher, Salmon Poetry. Through discussions with her, they realized there were opportunities beyond the conference.
“She started asking around for us, and it was surprising there were so many people and organizations who were eager to include us,” Drucilla said.
Their next stop was Melbourne, where the highlight was performing at the WB Yeats Society of Victoria. The organization takes its name from William Butler Yeats – one of Ireland’s most prolific poets and one of the 20th century’s foremost literary figures.
A jaunt up the southeastern coast took the Drucilla and Eamonn to Sydney, the last and busiest stop. Their time in Australia’s largest city was filled with three daily readings a piece at venues such as the café and the Glebe Hotel, a historic pub. However, there was one that stood out among the rest.
“The most thrilling one was at the Irish Consulate because the consul was there,” Drucilla said. “A wonderful woman who was a scholar of medieval Irish language was running it. We must have had 80 or so people in attendance. We got to give a nice performance and engage with them and share our books.”
Both Eamonn and Drucilla enjoyed sharing their work, but exploring the experiences of the Irish diaspora was even more fulfilling. Eamonn, a native of County Wexford, Ireland, who has lived in the U.S. for more than three decades, noted that Australia is very isolated geographically, yet Irish-Australians are outward looking and still greatly attuned to current events in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
He said there seemed to be a persistent curiosity about the U.S., but they have little reference for the experiences of Irish-Americans. Connections to cultural heritage vary widely between diaspora communities, but there are common threads.
“The sense of a complicated identity is something that is the same here as it is there,” Drucilla said. “The idea of going somewhere else maybe is troubling at first because it’s so far from home, yet it’s a place of opportunity and a place of beauty. I think that’s something that we share in America with Australia.
“In American culture, something that’s shaped all of us has been the place itself – the natural world, the rivers, the mountains, all of that. I got to see that from their point of view. It’s just as strong there, but it’s different.”
The written and spoken word has also shaped Irish people throughout the world. Perhaps due to figures such as Yeats, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, the Irish are particularly associated with storytelling. Eamonn believes it’s what unites the diaspora. It could be innate or it could be that the culture takes these things seriously and gives them weight.
“Ireland has rich oral tradition – poetry, storytelling, singing – these kinds of things,” Eamonn said. “So, there are a lot of Irish writers, singers and songwriters. There are also a lot of Irish lawyers and politicians. These are the careers that the Irish are attracted to. We think of the Irish in those terms, and we don’t always think of Irish people as scientists or engineers. We think more in terms of things that are oral or performative.
“In some ways, it’s a bit clichéd but there are certain truths in those clichés. The Irish have an interest in language and turning languages inside out and back to front and being playful.”
Eamonn tries to introduce UMSL students to these traditions on a summer study abroad program in Galway, Ireland, which he founded and has run for the past 20 years. Students study at the National University of Ireland Galway and take part in cultural excursions in the city and surrounding area.
Now back in America, Eamonn and Drucilla are strengthening the relationships they built “Down Under.” Casey, the writer who helped them set up their tour, is coming to UMSL on March 10 at their request to do a reading. They were happy to return the favor, as they feel it provides an immediate, tangible benefit to their students.
“They’re going to get firsthand experience with a living, productive writer with new books – a different voice that’s both Irish and Australian,” Drucilla said. “I think it just opens the world more for students.”
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