Wall was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. He attended University College, Dublin, earning a B.A. in English and history and the next year a diploma in education. After moving to the United States in the early 1980s, Wall took a M.A. from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and a Ph.D. from the City University of New York—Graduate Center.
Shortly after earning his doctorate, Wall published his first volume of poetry, called Dyckman-200th Street (1993). Writing in the Irish Literary Supplement, Jack Morgan claims that these “extraordinary poems” reinvigorate and give “a sharp, current edge” to “the exile tradition. This book marks a significant crosscurrent in contemporary Irish/American literature.” A review in the Irish Echo adds that though Wall’s residence in New York informs the work, “it is important that Ireland is ever present, in memory and in brilliant images.” Such crosscurrents have remained throughout his work.
The Boston Review compares Wall's second collection, Iron Mountain Road (1997) to that of William Carlos Williams, and says the poems “reveal [Wall] as a daring and original poet with an interest in exploring how the surfaces of the present open windows into history.”
His next book, a collection of essays blending fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, titled From the Sin-é Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish (2000), made his reputation as a cultural commentator. For this work, Wall was awarded the American Conference for Irish Studies’ Michael Durkan Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism. The Irish Literary Supplement praises “the extent to which the author is willing to explore with (and without) personal ease the complexities of what it means to be Irish in a contemporary climate of international translocation.” The same year he published his third collection of poetry, The Crosses and took a job at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, where he is the Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies and English. Just after this, he was elected vice-president of the American conference for Irish Studies.
Wall’s next two books were volumes of poetry, also published by Salmon Poetry: in 2004 he released Refuge at De Soto Bend and in 2008 A Tour of Your Country. A review of the latter in The Irish Times says, “Wall’s unique achievement is to understand that landscape is culture. […] Not only the US but Ireland is full of wonders and pleasures for this generous writer.” RTE, Irish national radio, calls the book “a hugely impressive collection.”
In 2011, Wall published another book of poetry with Salmon and a work of literary and cultural criticism with University of Notre Dame Press. The first is Sailing Lake Mareotis, the poems in which Kathleen McCracken, writing in Poetry Ireland Review, describes as “charged with a thoroughly contemporary and a profoundly literary awareness of what it means to be Irish, and a writer in America.” This other book, Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions, takes an ecocritical approach to transatlantic Irish literature (John McGahern, Martin McDonagh, Richard Murphy, Mary O’Malley, Moya Cannon, and Sean Lysaght). The book was lauded by fellow scholars, and a review in Irish Studies Review notes that it fosters “a growing body of work in Irish studies devoted to understanding the complex relationship among nature, landscape, environment, and geography that exists within Ireland’s literary history.
Wall regularly publishes poetry, short fiction, and reviews in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Washington Post Book World, The Chicago Tribune, The Irish Times, Criticism, Eire-Ireland, Shenandoah, Irish Herald, New Hibernia Review, and the Irish Literary Supplement. He holds the Charles A. Heimbold Jr., Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University for the spring 2014 semester
The Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Chair of Irish Studies is held in the Spring semester of each academic year by a distinguished Irish writer. Inaugurated in 2000, it has become one of the most prestigious Irish Studies positions in the United States.
The first Heimbold Professor was poet and editor Peter Fallon. To help celebrate the inaugural of the Chair, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney joined Peter Fallon for a joint reading. Since then, the Heimbold Chair has been held by an honor roll of Irish writers.
Normally, the Heimbold Professor teaches two undergraduate seminar courses, one in Creative Writing and one in Irish Literature, allowing Irish Studies students to have the enriching experience of a close classroom experience with Ireland's finest voices.