Steve Wall on his family’s tragedy: ‘It was a year from hell’

Steve Wall: ‘The people and places and experiences of Clare were a huge part of me becoming a songwriter’. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
The Stunning and The Walls singer reflects on his life and the 2017 car crash that devastated his family

“It was a year from hell” for Steve Wall, and for his whole family. On March 15th, 2017, the youngest of the five Wall siblings, Vincent (then 39) and his daughter Estlin, almost four, were in a car crash in Inagh, Co Clare, when he had to swerve to avoid a truck that had pulled out from behind a bus.

Estlin died in hospital days later, and Vincent sustained severe and significant brain injury. Afterwards, their mother Patricia’s cancer returned with a vengeance. At one stage the family were visiting both son and mother in University Hospital Limerick, in the high dependency unit and cancer ward. Patricia died in January 2018.

Steve Wall – singer-songwriter with The Stunning and The Walls with his brother Joe, and also a screen actor who played Chet Baker’s final days in My Foolish Heart and has joined Netflix’s fantasy series The Witcher – is chatting on a park bench near his home in Dublin’s Harold’s Cross on an unspeakably glorious day.

Those events of March 2017 – “it was a beautiful sunny day, like this” – came back into sharp focus early in the pandemic, with sentencing at an Ennis court during lockdown. The family gathered in support of Vinnie and his wife Amy for their moving victim-impact statements.

“It was very emotional. There were a lot of tears and afterwards we had to maintain our distance. It was really strange, no hugging.”

A few weeks later, at sentencing “there was a bit of a kick in the guts”. The driver got what Wall considers a low penalty: disqualified from driving for four years for careless driving causing death. “The judge fined him ¤750 for the death of Estlin and ¤750 for Vinnie’s injuries... He said in a case like this there are no winners and no losers.” Wall is aghast. “Of course there are losers.”

Steve recalls the events of three years ago, in the way those traumatised do. “You read things in the paper, down the bottom, about an accident. And you just hope nothing like that ever happens to us. And then one day it does. The phone rings, and, you know...”

He recalls the sunny day, raising the shutters in their nearby studio about 10, the phone going. “Even now, when I go down to the studio and the sun is shining and I’m lifting the shutters, it brings me back to that morning, every time. Like a flashback.”

We didn’t even have FM radio. I had this notion there was a great teenage movement happening somewhere in the world and I was missing out on it

“I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with it all yet. I just keep busy all the time. I think about my mother a lot, because this was her.” He gestures around him in Harold’s Cross Park. “I live in the same house as she did”, after her family moved there – “to the country!” – from the Liberties in 1956.

“My mother found it very difficult to move down to Ennistimon. She was a real Dub; it’s very connected here. She’s from a big family. She worked in Jacob’s off Aungier St and she would talk about the ballrooms, the Metropole, the concerts. Here’s this woman who had all of these dreams.

“It took her a long time to settle in Clare. She was into classical music, she loved going to the National Concert Hall. It probably would have been easier years later, when travelling was easier. And as a mother with four, then five, kids.”

She grew to love it when she met “like-minded people” and became involved with the Burren Action Group, opposing an interpretative centre in Mullaghmore in the early 1990s. “That divided the community in north Clare. Why put an interpretative centre in a place and ruin it?”

Theirs is not a Clare trad family. Steve Wall grew up listening to his aunt’s and grandfather’s records – Elvis, Perry Como, Beatles, Kinks, Ella Fitzgerald.

He says he “fell in love with music” in the house he lives in now, with his partner, film costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri, and their 15-year-old daughter Tuccia Corvisieri Wall.

In the Paradise in the Picturehouse songbook The Stunning have just published – a gorgeous LP-sized production full of handwritten lyrics and chords, photos, observations, scores – there’s a black and white photo of the old boot shop Connole & Wall in Ennistimon. It underlines the significance of family and place to Wall.

He was 13 when they moved to single-channel land, “50 years behind Dublin in so many ways ... We didn’t even have FM radio. I had this notion there was a great teenage movement happening somewhere in the world and I was missing out on it because I’d been unfairly dragged down there!”

But Ennistimon made him. He recalls after his Uncle Jack’s funeral years ago, his father “got quite emotional and said I’m sorry I dragged you all here. But I said to him it changed me so much for the better, that I wouldn’t have changed the experience of growing up in a small town in north Clare for the world. It opened me up as a person and formed me in so many ways.

“The people and places and experiences of Clare were a huge part of me becoming a songwriter.”

Town for Sale, he writes under the Connole & Wall photo in the songbook, is about the contrast between that bustling 1940s town and the late 1980s when he wrote the song. Today it’s flourishing and “things are looking up”, he writes.

Steve Wall: ‘Lyrics are the slowest part; they tend to come when you’re away from distraction’. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Steve Wall: ‘Lyrics are the slowest part; they tend to come when you’re away from distraction’. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

He took the first course he was offered after school: mechanical engineering at Galway RTC. For him, college was less for study than “somewhere to meet like-minded people”, and to join a band.

A summer in Bavaria aged 19 earning his fees was his first time abroad (“my mother was crying in Shannon as I left”). He recalls panicking on the plane, gormlessly asking another passenger mid-way – he says it now in German – was he on the right plane for Munich?

The experience was life-changing for him: “There were condom machines on the street and beer dispensers in the factory. It was so different.”

Back in Galway he joined punk-New Wave band New Testament in 1982 as a guitar player, with art student Eamonn Dowd, and thought “this is what I want to do”.

It was to be years later, and some meandering, before the multiply-talented Wall started The Stunning, with his brother Joe, and later again, The Walls.

He had a hankering to act and aged 22, he walked into Druid Theatre where founder Marie Mullen offered him work. He had an “amazing couple of years”, as sound operator, Maeliosa Stafford’s understudy, director Garry Hynes’s assistant on ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (“her go-fer for Embassy cigarettes and coffees”).

A move to Dublin to make a go of acting turned into a year on the dole: “There was no internet. I never even heard about auditions”. But he went to lots of gigs.

One day he had a Eureka moment and realised “you could start a band of your own volition” and have more control over your destiny than as an actor. He put an ad in Hot Press, “vocalist seeks musicians for band”, and The Stunning, a rock band with a brass section, was born in 1987 in Galway.

Steve dragged his brother Joe home from abroad to join on bass and vocals (“I knew he’d be great to have in a band”) with Cormac Dunne (drums), Derek Murray (guitar), Jim Higgins (trumpet/percussion/keyboards) and Steve (lead guitar/vocals).

The ad listed his eclectic tastes, from Johnny Cash to Ben E King to The Clash, and The Stunning sound reflects that. “You can hear all kinds of stuff in there, from country to soul to a bit of rock ‘n’ roll, and punk ethos as well. The diversity scared the record companies away but it’s stood us in good stead.”

Their first gig was the Hilltop Hotel in Salthill, which led to a two-week residency, then years of gigging, sometimes seven nights a week, touring, building an audience. Their first single Got to Get Away (1988) reached number 17 in the Irish charts, followed by Half Past Two and Romeo’s on Fire. Brewing up a Storm was “our first flop” but took off on the 1990 album Paradise in the Picturehouse, and “became huge”.

The Stunning, a great live band, has had great longevity and enormous fan loyalty. Steve and Joe (a lecturer at BIMM music school in Dublin), two-and-a-half years younger, are close. Sometimes they disagree but “we have never fallen out, we just work it out. We’re practically telepathic at this point.”

They have two very successful bands, The Stunning, later The Walls (now “on the shelf for a little while”) and back full circle to The Stunning, whose 2018 album Twice Around the World went to number 1. A Walls album is ready to go, “when the time is right”.

He and Joe do everything: put out the records, promotion, bookings. “We’re a cottage industry – it’s necessity, without the backing of a big label.” There’s a creatively entrepreneurial talent there – Wall learnt music business through “making all the mistakes” (“still do”).

The albums sell well, but these days there’s no money in them. “We’re self-funded. The gigs pay for everything, for making that book. It still costs the same to make an album but you don’t make money from it unless you’ve a song in an ad or movie.”

The streaming model has to change, he says. If someone streams Half Past Two, Spotify pays The Stunning .0047 of a US cent. “The bottom rung is YouTube – I think you stick another zero in there. They get away with it because they’re a technical intermediary, not a content provider.”

Wall has been campaigning with Imro chairwoman Eleanor McEvoy for legislation to have Facebook and YouTube pay “at least the same as Spotify, which is a pittance”.

He’s looking forward to getting back to work. He writes alone and records onto his phone, starting with the music. “Lyrics are the slowest part; they tend to come when you’re away from distraction”.

He’s finding it hard to write now. “A lot of stuff has happened that I haven’t figured out and that needs to come out somehow. I would like to write some stories as well.”

The Stunning has “defaulted into a festival band so our busiest period is the summer” and the year’s gigs have all toppled to Covid-19. They’re rescheduled to 2021.

“It’s a whole year’s income just wiped. Everyone’s in the same boat. We don’t have large reserves to sit back on ... It really is worrying, the longer this goes on. We’re probably going to be the last sector to get back to work.”

Acting was unfinished business. Around 2010 he bumped, separately, into actor Jane Brennan and casting agent Maureen Hughes, pals from Galway days, who encouraged him to act again. A screen-acting workshop led to setting up Dublin Actors Studio (“such a buzz”) and his first audition, in 2012 for Uncle Danny in Moone Boy.

He has gone on to build up a very decent screen career: as Einar in Vikings, acting opposite Donald Sutherland in crime drama Crossing Line, and playing Lee Cronin’s supernatural horror The Hole in the Ground.

Due soon are a role in the new Ridley Scott series Raised by Wolves, and the Irish comedy-drama The South Westerlies. He looks busy, though he observes the release timelag makes it look like he worked all through lockdown, while the truth is he hasn’t worked so far this year.

He laughs about Normal People. “I envy them. When I think back to that age in college in Galway, when you’d no access to contraception … You see the sort of sex they’re enjoying in Normal People – if only I could turn back the clock!”

In his day, “it took a long time and a lot of patience to get a girl to take off that big black jumper down to her knees and those Docs and black leggins!” The lack of Catholic guilt, “all the stuff we grew up with”, in Normal People is refreshing.

“How free and beautiful the sex is. Hopefully that’s what most young people are enjoying these days”, though “not everybody has the advantage of an intimacy co-ordinator to show you the best way to conduct it in the sack! Young men getting to see this is how it’s supposed to be. Where else will they see it? Certainly not in porn, which is the opposite, it’s fake.”

He hasn’t done much in the way of sex scenes. “I had to masturbate once, so that was slightly awkward.” He had to play an attempted rape in Vikings, where “the character makes a run for her and grabs her and tries to have his way with her. And she’s much stronger, belittles him, basically tells him to go take a hike.”

Grabbing hold of actor Catherine Winnick, Wall obviously wasn’t forceful enough. The director roared “cut!”

“She said, listen Einar, you’ve got a boner, you’re coming in here, you want to rape her. Catherine, is it okay if Steve touches your boobs? She goes sure. Steve, I want you to grab her boobs, grind up against her.” He’s laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.

“There was no intimacy co-ordinator. It was just two women telling me this is what you gotta do. Take two. It was a learning experience. I’d be better at it now!”

Exorbitant rents didn’t force people in the artistic community out of the city. If anything has changed it’s the terrible mistakes governments made over the years

These days the family shop in Ennistimon is empty. The plan was that Vinnie would move his framing business there, but the accident put paid to that for now. He’s “doing great. He is unable to work unfortunately, or drive”. In May he and Amy had a lockdown baby, Lucy. A few days later the DPP said they are appealing the leniency of the sentence.

For Vinnie the court case was a big thing. “He basically came to after the crash to discover his little girl was gone. Estlin passed away in Amy’s arms when they turned the machine off. There was a huge funeral in Ennistimon. The community gathered around. But through all of this, Vinnie was in Beaumont hooked up to a machine, in some headspace nobody knows. Four or five weeks later he found out she was gone.”

The brain damage has taken time to heal. “So everything was a challenge for him. Walking, balance, eyesight. Memories come back. He doesn’t remember anything about the accident. I suppose all of the feelings as well.”

He has issues with peripheral vision, tinnitus, sensations; playing soccer the ball moves in stop-frame motion, and he sometimes has a tremor. “He has the same sense of humour, he’s just a bit more delicate. He used to be great gig-goer, but he doesn’t like crowded areas anymore. You just have to look out for him a bit, keep an eye.”

We look at a photo of musicians in the kitchen of the legendary, departed, Warwick Hotel, after a Galway Arts Festival gig in 1992, At Home with the Stunning. He recalls the bachelor pad set (“a washing line with underwear, a fridge full of beer”) and pals dropping in: Máirtín O Connor, Brendan O’Regan, their trumpet-player Jim Higgins’ father (also Jimmy). “You wouldn’t know who would come through the door. I’d love to do it again. Sinéad O’Connor was the last doorbell. I remember the gasp from the audience.”

Those were the days. “I’m so glad I was part of it. It was a very creative time in Galway – Druid, Sharon Shannon, the Saw Doctors. A lot of great art and poetry. The arts festival was probably the best in the country, if not Europe. Macnas, the music scene, the crews. There really was an artistic community and everybody was intertwined.”

He is passionate and annoyed such a community, like Galway in the 1980s and early 1990s, is impossible now because people can’t afford space to live or to work.

“You could say the same about any place. It’s always about the people, and certain things were different that made it easier. Exorbitant rents didn’t force people in the artistic community out of the city. If anything has changed it’s the terrible mistakes governments made over the years. With bad planning that sort of artistic community gets lost.”

It’s hard to envisage a scene happening again, he says. “You need like-minded people within an area bumping into each other.” It’s not just Galway of course. He laments the loss of a music scene in Dublin.

All the same, as we sit in the park, Liam Ó Maonlaí stops to chat. Then Eleanor McEvoy passes and greets, as does Féile organiser Joe Clarke, who lives down the road. Later we run into ex-Hozier keyboardist Cormac Curran. It’s like Wall set up a mini-music scene to come to us here on the park bench. “We just need a bag of cans!” He roars laughing.

Paradise in the Picturehouse 30th anniversary songbook and LP are available on thestunning.net. The new six-part drama series The South Westerlies begins Sunday, September 6th on RTÉ One. Ridley Scott’s Raised by Wolves is streaming on HBO Max in the US.