by Isabel Conway
First published in Business Post.
I’m in Lismore, Co Waterford. A wilderness of greenery cloaks a couple of stone outbuildings that have old iron artefacts leaning up against them, behind a pair of high gates. The undisturbed scene is a flashback to the past, offering no sign at all of human occupation.
A local man gives directions, pointing towards the secluded laneway. Dervla Murphy, as he puts it, is “one of our own”, and she lives up this laneway in a collection of 17th-century buildings.
For more than 50 years, Ireland’s greatest travel writer of modern times has travelled the world, mostly alone and by bicycle, returning home from Peru, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa, India, Israel, Palestine, Laos, Siberia and many more far-flung places to write 26 internationally acclaimed books.
The indefatigable Murphy’s vicissitudes on the road are the stuff of legend. She was attacked by wolves in the mountains of Yugoslavia on that first journey by bicycle to India. Luckily, she was carrying a .25 revolver that Lismore’s gardaí had shown her how to use before setting out during one of the coldest winters on record in 1963. She succeeded in shooting one wolf dead and frightening the others off.
In her time, Murphy has been stoned by youths, stung by a scorpion, assaulted in Azerbaijan and narrowly escaped with her life after being robbed three times in Ethiopia.
Invasion by bedbugs and tick bites were unavoidable when bedding down in mud huts, kraals and doss houses, or wherever gave protection from ferocious extremes of weather and other dangers. Malaria in the African bush, dysentery in Pakistan, brucellosis in India, hepatitis in Madagascar, broken ribs in a couple of countries, a fractured coccyx and a broken foot in Romania, a new hip after a fall in Palestine.
Ever the stoic, Murphy would usually get back on her bicycle after she was patched up. It’s the measure of this extraordinary woman, called a “goddamn nutcase” by an American tourist when she refused his offer of a lift while hiking along a desert road in the burning heat.
With trepidation, I locate her back gate and follow the overgrown path to a stone structure. An admirer of Murphy all my life, I am nervous about meeting this most intrepid of travellers, who celebrates her 88th birthday next Thursday.
The much-loved author of Full Tilt, her debut remarkable story of cycling 4,500 miles from Ireland to India rarely gives interviews. Our meeting has been organised via a longtime friend of Murphy’s, based in London. They met 40 years earlier, trekking in the mountains of Peru. The friend cautions me: “You’ll find Dervla courteous and hospitable, but she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and hates being called courageous or brave.”
I arrive at a collection of several unconnected stone buildings across a cobbled courtyard, a forge, piggery, cow house and store converted into a study, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. The door of the first building is ajar. An entire wall is taken up by a packed bookcase with lots more books lining smaller shelves, including more than two hundred titles Murphy read while researching her last book Between River and Sea, published in 2016 and focusing on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The room has two desks, one on which Murphy wrote all of her books first in longhand, later typewriting before delivery to her mentor and publisher of more than four decades, John Murray in London. She acquired an electric typewriter to speed the work up a bit, but has never used a PC. A cherished old Tibetan flag that the Dalai Lama gave her in gratitude for her work with Tibetan refugee children covers the typewriter.
A sheathed dagger lies on a side table, and dotted around are handicrafts brought home from the ends of the earth. Framed photo collages of Murphy with her three granddaughters Rose, now 23, Clodagh, 21 and Zoe, 19 , have pride of place.
A sturdy, somewhat stooped woman with short white hair, wearing loose trousers, a body warmer and open toed hiking sandals crosses the cobbled yard and enters her study. She is welcoming and delivers a firm handshake. Her eyes are penetrating, those of a professional observer who misses nothing. She also has that invaluable writer’s gift of being an expert listener and communicator, one who has charmed her way into the affections of people – from influential diplomats and the like, to the poorest of the poor – who gave her friendship and assistance on her journeys.
A bench covered with a warm rug is the domain of Wurzel, her beloved elderly terrier. Two young cats streak after each other’s tails.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my animals,” Murphy says. “I used to have six or seven cats and four and five dogs at a time. I was always so delighted to see them when I came home at the end of long journeys, glad to be back in my territory and be starting on the next book.”
In her 80th year, Murphy had spent a long period travelling between Israel and Palestine researching the follow up to her widely acclaimed Gaza travelogue A Month By The Sea. Next, she switched her sights to Jordan, visiting Syrian refugee camps, as usual delving deeply into the region’s politics and history as well as its people and culture with visits to Petra and Wadi Rum.
“I had to come back after fracturing my pelvis,” she says. “It wasn’t a fall but a silly way of slipping, as I was sitting down.” Since then, a combination of emphysema and arthritis in her neck have put a stop to both her travels and her writing. “There’s no good having angst about it,” she says. “You realise these things are inevitable as you get old. I won’t be going anywhere; I might as well face it, but that’s okay.”
The only child of intellectual and unorthodox parents, Murphy’s lifelong stamina may owe something to her childhood diet, which involved plenty of raw beef and raw liver. She never saw her invalided mother stand. As if her mother foresaw that Murphy was destined to conquer massive distances and daunting physical challenge she would never know herself, she encouraged her to get out and see the world.
It was only after her mother passed away that Murphy could realise her dream to travel and write about her journeys. At 16 she was already cycling around England and, by the time she was 18, she had biked alone through post-war France along the Rhine to Germany.
She gets up at 5am, eats only once daily, and usually is in bed by 9pm. She possesses neither a TV, central heating nor consumer comforts and goods the rest of us take for granted. It smacks of a strict monastic lifestyle. “Oh, not at all,” she laughs, pouring herself a beer. “It takes me two hours to eat that one meal. I have an absolutely colossal breakfast with plenty of my own brown bread.”
I can vouch for the excellence of Murphy’s soda bread and the nourishing soup containing at least six vegetables she has made when I make a return trip a few weeks later. Since our last meeting, the British Guild of Travel Writers has awarded her its prestigious Lifetime Achievement prize.
Though she has received many awards, and can count the likes of Michael Palin among her many admirers, Murphy is visibly overwhelmed by this most recent recognition. The founder of Bradt Guides, Hilary Bradt, has hand-delivered Murphy’s framed citation from England. It reads: “Dervla is the real thing. In an age of gimmicks and promotions she has travelled for the sheer love of it, for enjoying spectacular scenery away from the crowds and for meeting people away from the trappings of civilisation.”
After lunch, Murphy sips a glass of beer, Wurzel next to her, and shares her strong opinions on a variety of topics.
She is a fervent opponent of mass tourism, pointing to its negative contribution to the climate problem with the never ending increase in air traffic. She also believes that it does little to improve the economies of formerly remote enclaves.
“Mass tourism exists for nothing else than to make profit,” she says. “It tries to sell itself as being so important to local economics. In my experience, the reverse is actually true.”
She cites Pakistan’s Baltistan as a location where so called intrepid travellers “stay in hotels staffed by people brought in from outside because the locals don’t have the training”. When she travelled to the remotest corners of the region, taking her young daughter Rachel and writing Where the Indus is Young, there was no electricity nor cash economy.
“People were advanced in other ways,” she recalls. “They had enough food and they were sustainable. Now they have little or nothing in winter when the fruit and vegetables are sold to feed tourists, and they’ve bought consumer goods that are pretty much useless with the money they earned.”
In her ideal world, everyone would cycle and cars would be taken off the roads. “Cars are the curse of our age,” she declares, adding that it may be too late to do much about rescuing the world and reversing climate change.
As a grandmother she does not want to express too much pessimism, so as “not to depress young people too much about the future”. At a time when the vast majority of women who can afford to travel in comfort couldn’t imagine staying in hostels and cheap guest houses, these are places where Murphy has been happiest. “I loathe hotels, always have,” she shudders.
Does she believe young people today travel as she has done – curious, fearless, adventurous? “ The first thing I see them do is plugging in their laptops or getting on the phone to Mummy and Daddy at home,” she says. “It drives me insane. Why do they bother leaving home if they miss Mummy and Daddy so much? But I blame the parents too, telling them: ‘Remember now to get in touch every evening so we know you’re okay’.”
Her daughter Rachel went travelling in India at the age of 17 for six months. How often did she contact Murphy on that trip?
“Once,” Murphy replies.
A phone call?
“Oh, there were no phone calls. It was a letter.”
Murphy does, however, say that it is now more dangerous for a woman to travel solo. “It’s riskier now in certain countries where people have suddenly acquired these mobile phones and see these pornographic videos and depictions of sexual violence against women,” she says.
“And yes, there are places where I would worry about the safety of my granddaughters. It’s a great shame but, sadly, the way the world has gone. I was so lucky, but we must always believe in the goodness of people in general. Far from intending to hurt us, most people are humane, helpful and don’t intend us harm.”
Eleven of Dervla Murphy’s titles are in print through Eland Publishing, including the classic Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, her autobiography Wheels within Wheels: The Makings of a Traveller, and her last two books on Palestine and Israel. For a full listing of these titles and for more information, visit travelbooks.co.uk/dervla-murphy