When Tom Marino ’78 sat down with his wife to determine how he might best go about honoring his friend and former Lacrosse teammate Eamon McEneaney ’77, little did he know that just a few months later, Irish-born author Edna O’Brien would appear here at Cornell in his departed friend’s name. McEneaney perished in the attacks on the World Trade Center September 11 of last year. And though Marino and several of McEneaney’s former teammates, friends, and family members have already saluted McEneaney in various ways, Marino felt there was more to be done.
“When the whole thing happened I was literally across the street,” recalls Marino, his voice softening. “My building, the World Financial Center, looks right at the World Trade Center … when the whole thing hit, everyone was in shock, obviously.
“Then the phone calls started coming in from some of the teammates because we knew Eamon was in that tower — I used to see him all the time in the lobby. We all thought that if there was a way, if anyone could get out, it was Eamon McEneaney. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.”
Since that day, much has been accomplished in McEneaney’s name. A scholarship has been endowed, a plaque placed on campus commemorating his achievements. When Marino and many of McEneaney’s former teammates gathered in April to officially retire McEneaney’s number, it was the first time in Cornell’s long Lacrosse history such a tribute has been paid.
“But, I was also thinking about doing something that was different than a scholarship,” says Marino. “And so I sat down with my wife and we started talking. For those people who really knew Eamon — as great as an athlete as he was and for as well known as he was — those who really knew Eamon know that his other love was for the written word. In particular, he loved the written word of Ireland.
“He was a poet, he wrote stories, and he was working on a play. That was a real passion that he had. For years now, he’s been talking about how that’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to retire and really going to get into his writing because he’s been writing all these years anyhow.”
It was with this in mind that Marino began planning the Eamon McEneaney Memorial Reading Series.
“And that’s how the idea came up,” says Marino. “We said, why not endow a week a year where a famous literary author, poet, or figure can come to Cornell in the name of Eamon and work with students — graduate and undergraduate. This person would be focused more on the creative writing side because that was Eamon’s real passion. We had a great desire to have a clear focus on Irish literature, which is where is real love was.”
Potentiality became reality as Marino worked with Lamar Herrin, head of Cornell’s creative writing program and Harry Shaw, Professor of English and former Chair of the English Department.
“We asked ourselves who should kick this off, who should we ask to come,” remembers Marino, going on to say, “We wanted to do this right … and I eventually asked, if you could have anybody, if you would just die to have somebody, who would it be? Without any hesitation — I don’t remember if it was Harry or Lamar — somebody said ‘Edna O’Brien.’ Even though we thought it would be a stretch, we thought we should aim high. And from there we said, let’s reach as high as we can and work our way down if we have to. Let’s reach beyond what we think could be possible.”
Enda O’Brien, who has been lauded as Ireland’s dark Colette, is the author of over 20 novels and numerous short stories including 2002’s much hailed In the Forrest, a novel based on a real triple homicide that took place in Ireland in 1994. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, O’Brien currently resides in London though the primary concern of her prose remains her mother country.
Her career has, in part, been a controversial one. While her first novels were banned in Ireland due to their sexual content and their treatment of female sexuality, the subject matter for her more recent works has come from the newsstands in the tradition of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer.
Richard B. Woodward of New York Times Magazine called O’Brien “A poet of heartbreak, she writes most tellingly about the hopeless, angry passion that courts self-ruin.”
Aside from her novels, O’Brien also has an enormous breadth of short fiction to her credit, as well as screenplays and television scripts.
The Ireland of O’Brien’s work is variously warm and ice-cold, her characters at times concerned, neglectful, religious, and rebellious. As a lauded contemporary Irish author, O’Brien’s participation as the first reader in the McEneaney Memorial Reading Series is indeed a welcome and important addition to the literary life of the university.
Yesterday, I caught up with O’Brien at the Bookery in downtown Ithaca as she signed books for fans and admirers.
“[Ithaca’s] been very welcoming to me. I’ve even been obliged with a little Irish rain to feel at home. I think the university and the group I’ve met at the university are so enthusiastic and so interested in literature. And the world that gives literature the time of day is, for me, a tops thing,” she said.
Ms. O’Brien has been on campus since Monday holding formal and informal meetings with students and faculty. She will read this evening at 8:00 p.m. in Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller Hall and will hold an open colloquium tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 p.m. in the English Department lounge on the second floor of Goldwin Smith Hall.
Archived article by Nate Brown