When she was a student of English at Trinity College in the early noughties, Irish author Louise O’Neill remembers one particular lecture during which the portrayal of women in literature was being discussed. When the lecturer mentioned Marian Keyes, O’Neill recalls how many of her classmates shared a knowing look in recognition of Keyes’s importance, alongside Jane Austen and others, as a social commentator. In her thirteen novels to date, Marian Keyes has unflinchingly probed societal and human suffering but has always managed to capture some redemptive moment, something to remind her many millions of readers of the joy that life can offer.
For Marian Keyes herself, the act of writing is one of life’s greatest joys. She has stated that writing is the “most authentic way I can be,” and, undoubtedly, authenticity is a defining feature of her books. The potential of hope that is intrinsic to Keyes’s writing is perhaps informed by her instinctive belief in humanity and the power of a happy ending. She has said that she “would rather never be published again than write a downbeat ending,” and she has demonstrated over and over again, in her writing and in her life, that even in the darkest times, there is always the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel.
Marian Keyes was born in Limerick and grew up in Cavan, Cork, Galway and Dublin. After studying law at university, she joined the many other young Irish people who emigrated to London in the 1980s. With no grand plan to become a writer, she spent her twenties working first as a waitress and later in an accounts office. This was a difficult period for Marian, and she has spoken openly about her struggles with depression and alcoholism during that time. What ultimately inspired her to write was reading a short story in a magazine and thinking to herself: “I could do that.” In 1993, aged thirty, Marian Keyes sent her first story to Poolbeg Press. That event would change the course of her life.
Clearly recognising her talent, Poolbeg published Keyes’s first novel two years later. With its combination of wit, courage and searing honesty, Watermelon was a runaway success. It became an immediate bestseller in Ireland and did not take long to make an equal impact abroad. Since then, Marian Keyes has enjoyed continued success as a novelist and nonfiction writer. Twice an Irish Book Awards winner, she has sold over forty million books worldwide, and her work has been translated into thirty-six languages. Despite the distinctly Irish tone of her writing, the stories she tells transcend borders and tackle issues that have touched the lives of almost everybody at some time of their lives. She has fans all over the world.
Focusing too much on the commercial success of Keyes’s novels, however, would risk overlooking the craft and subtlety with which they are written. Time and again she has demonstrated her unique ability to write stories about serious subjects with compassion and humour. In tackling such subjects, she has made an enormous contribution to chipping away at the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction, and for this she deserves our praise and gratitude.
Marian Keyes has been described as a writer of popular fiction, and to the extent that her novels prove endlessly popular with audiences of different genders, generations and countries, she is certainly that. Referring to her writing as “moving and brave,” Zadie Smith has described Keyes as one of the most important feminists in modern writing. This has been echoed by others who assert that her work narrates a different kind of Irishness, containing within it memories of historical issues that have oppressed Irish women.
Marian Keyes doesn’t only write books. Many of you will be aware of her Twitter presence, where she offers frequently hilarious musings on the minutiae of everyday life. Her commentary often features “Himself” – Tony Baines, her husband of twenty-three years, whom she describes as her “best friend.”
As an honorary ambassador of the Irish Writers Centre, Marian is a tireless champion of young Irish writers and serves as a role model for aspiring artists and authors, particularly women. It is hardly surprising to learn that she still loves words as much as ever. However, it is not only through her words that she contributes to Irish life and culture but also through her actions. Her courage, conviction and unwillingness to ever give up have helped make her a literary icon and one of Ireland’s most successful novelists, and it is for this that we honour her here today.
President, I present to you Marian Keyes and ask that you confer upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.