Tag Archives: Dervla Murphy

Obituary: Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy in 1990. She had a tolerance for hardship and a curiosity about everyday elsewheres, which she kept through half a century of advancing by bike, foot, mule and cart (she never drove a car) on and off road across four continents. Photograph: Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Travel writer who famously journeyed alone from her native Ireland to India on a bicycle, armed with a pistol and a compass

First published in The Guardian

Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, published in 1965, is now as much a historical document of a gone world as a travel book, but its feeling of release, cycling towards a wide future while running away from a confined past, still exhilarates. Like notable 19th-century women travellers such as Isabella Bird Bishop, when at last released from a cage of domestic duty Murphy travelled, riding through the cold, snowy winter of 1962-63.

She went armed with a .25 pistol and basic instruction from the County Waterford gardai on how to use it, which she did to confront wolves and thieves, and also with the maps and compass through which she had explored the planet in her imagination since childhood. Most of all she had a tolerance for hardship (her total budget was £64) and a curiosity about everyday elsewheres, which she kept through half a century of advancing by bike, foot, mule and cart (she never drove a car) on and off road across four continents.

Murphy, who has died aged 90, wrote 26 books, many in the diary style of Full Tilt, approaching each day, person and place, fresh on the page as she had experienced it. That directness appealed to readers, along with Murphy’s viewpoint, which was novel because of her background: she was a voracious reader but with little formal education and, being from the Irish countryside, outside those higher levels of the class structure that dominated travel writing. Rural poverty around the globe was no surprise to Murphy, who had attended a village primary school with barefoot, hungry classmates, and knew families dying of tuberculosis.

She arrived alone at each destination without social introductions, was shy at home but en route talked with anyone who responded, and, in life as well as writing, downplayed risks and tribulations – from injury, sickness and assault to dirt and nothing for supper.

Aged 10, she had realised on riding her first bike that simple pedal power might one day take her to India, and on the way there she discovered how each day’s whizz of the wheels of her Armstrong Cadet cycle, Roz (short for Rozinante, Don Quixote’s horse), carried her forward to kind strangers’ hospitality. Coming fast down a mountain road always thrilled her; touring the Balkans in her 70s, she was clocked descending at 65mph by a military patrol and reproved for not applying her brakes.

Murphy’s attitude to gender and social norms was also uncommon at the time. Tall, deep-voiced, muscled, practical and with a decisiveness accrued from constant solo choices, she was often taken for a man by other societies, and occasionally romanticised the restricted roles of those societies’ womenfolk, which she would never have put up with herself.

Dervla Murphy in India

She was sure of her own life’s direction, if uncertain of its meanderings. She never intended to marry, but once able to support herself through writing, did want a child. Her daughter, Rachel, deliberately conceived with Terence de Vere White, the literary editor of the Irish Times, was born in 1968, and her mother raised her alone, never naming the father publicly until after his death in 1994.

Rachel had her fifth birthday in Kodagu (then called Coorg), south-west India, on the first of her journeys with her mother; they later went to Baltistan, Peru, Madagascar and Cameroon. Until Rachel reached puberty, when the people they met travelling began to regard her as an adult who shared a sealed bubble of foreignness with her mother, she was an asset, a connection to families, though also, sometimes, a distraction, interrupting Murphy’s communion with the deep, pre-modern silence of the Himalayas or Andes. Their relationship could be difficult, but it lasted, and in time Murphy, Rachel, and Rachel’s daughters, Rose, Clodagh and Zea, all dossed down together on a Cuban beach for a three-generation trip on the usual shoestring, in 2005.

Murphy’s own hard family situation had formed her, she wrote in Wheels Within Wheels (1979). Her parents went from Dublin to Lismore in Waterford when her father, Fergus Murphy, was appointed county librarian. Soon after Dervla’s birth, her mother, Kathleen, contracted a rare rheumatoid arthritis that crippled her: perhaps in compensation she nurtured Dervla’s daring, giving her that first bike despite money always being short. But, aged 14, Dervla was withdrawn from the Ursuline convent boarding school in Waterford to serve as Kathleen’s carer for 16 years. Kathleen encouraged her brief bike jaunts to England and Europe, though Dervla had to return from each few weeks’ freedom to burdensome duty.

Fergus died in 1961 and Kathleen the following year, leaving Murphy with a house, books (her lifetime collection grew to 9,000), strong convictions about political and social injustice, and her freedom. After Full Tilt, based on diaries published only because of a chance meeting in Delhi with Penelope Chetwode, John Betjeman’s wife, came Tibetan Foothold (1966) and The Waiting Land (1967), which grew out of work with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. From the late 1970s, the purpose of her travels shifted to inquiring into the effects of recent history on people and places, beginning with A Place Apart (1978), a bike ride round Northern Ireland, then at an implacable stage of its Troubles.

On a Greyhound bus crossing the US, she passed close to Three Mile Island, the site in 1979 of the US’s worst nuclear power accident, which inspired Nuclear Stakes, Race to the Finish (1982), the first of the books in which her politics mattered more than the travelling, through Kenya and Zimbabwe during the Aids epidemic, Romania after its revolution, Rwanda after genocide, the Balkans after a decade of wars.

These culminated with an unfinished trilogy on Palestinian territorial fragments – Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordanian camps – researched as ever over coffee in crowded tenements or tea on tent floors. She was strongly for socialism, and against almost everything else, especially mass tourism.

A hip replacement after a fall in Jerusalem, aged almost 80, plus arthritis and emphysema, finally confined Murphy to her austere base in Lismore, the remnant of a 17th-century cattle market plus eccentric outbuildings, where she organised a travel-writing festival and received pilgrims, including Michael Palin, visiting for a television documentary, Who Is Dervla Murphy?, in 2016. She asked him to join her daily skinny dip in the River Blackwater.

Her daughter and granddaughters survive her.

Dervla Murphy, traveller and writer, born 28 November 1931; died 22 May 2022


The Travel Writing Tribe by Tim Hannigan review – an elitist genre?

Rory Stewart on his trek across northern Afghanistan in 2002. Photograph: Rick Loomis/LA Times via Getty Images

This article is well worth a read. I don’t know about the book, but the ideas that it explores are interesting. The hypothesis is that travel writing used to be dominated by Old Etonians with colonialist tendencies; but this critique apparently shows that the ‘travellees’ are writing back.

By  Ali Bhutto

First published in The Guardian

In the decades following the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, academics have shed light on some of the uncomfortable truths about travel writing. These include its tendency to be a white, male-dominated genre that glorifies colonial sensibilities and reduces individuals encountered on a journey to mere caricatures. Over time, however, scholars adopted a more nuanced approach, recognising attempts by some works of travel writing to rectify such imbalances of power. 

Nevertheless, it is fitting that the opening chapter of Tim Hannigan’s book, The Travel Writing Tribe, is titled “The Long White Track”. The book is unusual in that Hannigan, who is well versed in the scholarly critique of the genre, confronts these questions from the perspective of both an academic and a travel writer.

From the very start, he picks up on a curious pattern. Almost all the better-known male British travel writers, including Wilfred Thesiger, Peter Fleming, Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Rory Stewart, attended prestigious independent schools, most commonly Eton College, followed by a higher education at Oxford. Not all of them, however, made it to university. Patrick Leigh Fermor was “kicked out of more than one boarding school … An alarmed housemaster once described him as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’”. Likewise, Colin Thubron suffered from a “growing tally of educational miscarriages”. He sat his maths O-level at Eton three times and failed “by a wider margin each time”; he failed the entry exam to Cambridge and was later declared ineligible for national service, after which he started working at a publishing house.

Hannigan’s research takes him deep into the heart of the British establishment as he sifts through Thesiger’s diaries at the Eton College archives. He notices that the students, clad in the trademark black tails, pinstripe trousers and white ties, stood out from the rest of the townsfolk, as if they belonged a separate tribe. He writes: “I was still keen to pursue an idea about Old Etonian travel writers having some particular predilection for ‘tribal cultures’ in other parts of the world, and the possibility that this had something to do with their schooling.” This was, to an extent, evident in Thesiger’s choice of company during his travels: “In Arabia and beyond, his preferred society seems always to have been a small group of young men and boys, possessed of some elite and initiated status, perfectly isolated from the great plurality of town and village.”

The travel writing genre is often criticised for its unfair treatment of the “travellee” – the people encountered by the narrator during a journey. But a significant number of works have made a concerted effort to empower the same. In 1996, Nick Danziger, who lacks the public-school background of his fellow travellers, profiled a series of marginalised communities in Danziger’s Britain, giving their voices more space in the text than his own.

Similarly, in This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian is challenged by a local of Kattankudy, who asks him: “What good will this conversation do for me?” – a question Subramanian is unable to answer convincingly.

Travel writing and journalism, Hannigan observes, were inextricably linked, yet there appeared to be a “strange tussle” going on between the two: “For a writer with literary aspirations, the word ‘journalist’ seemed to suggest relegation to the lower divisions … But on the other hand, for a writer with established literary credentials, eager to claim the kudos of empiricism, ‘journalist’ might appear a higher designation than ‘travel writer’.”

There was also, Hannigan notes, the genre’s complicated relationship with the portrayal of facts. Some writers had the tendency to fictionalise various details for aesthetic purposes. He had, for instance, noticed, “the slight disconnect between the raw records of Thesiger’s journeys and his books”.

Hannigan also visits the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy, who cycled from her home in Ireland to India in 1963 and wrote about it in her debut work, Full Tilt. He learns from Barnaby Rogerson, the publisher at Eland, that despite her age, she was open to receiving visitors as long as they brought some beer with them. Her home, which “can hardly be described as a house”, was a collection of small old buildings scattered across a walled compound; it had once been the town market. During the interview, she tells him that her reputation for being a recluse is undeserved and only while writing a book does she go into “purdah”.

Murphy, whose anti-colonial middle-class Irish background sets her apart from most travel writers of her time, is hesitant to pin her books down to a specific genre, preferring instead to describe them as “journalistic records”.

Haunted by the grim commercial prospects of professional travel writers, Hannigan seeks reassurance wherever possible. According to Rogerson, limited funding for writers may in fact be producing better travel books. The best books, he argues, are not the ones churned out when writers try to meet deadlines, but those that are “oscillating inside them and had to come out … because the experience is so strong and profound”.

Thubron, meanwhile, is more optimistic about the future of travel writing. He refers to an edition of Granta that lists Mohsin Hamid, Rana Dasgupta and Subramanian on its cover, alongside his own – and there are others, such as Monisha Rajesh and Kapka Kassabova, both of whom Hannigan interviews. The future of the genre is fluid and adaptable, and in the hands of writers from all over the world. “The voice of those once written about is coming back and writing about us,” he says.

Dervla Murphy’s lore

Dervla Murphy at 88

Although some have questioned why she is featured on the blog, I know that others enjoy reading about this intrepid lady, who is perhaps a more intrepid and accomplished travel writer than our very own Paddy. Her books are available via the website of our friends, Eland Publishing. Dervla celebrated her 88th birthday mid-November 2019. Isabel Conway met her for a chat about her extraordinary life and adventures.

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

Dervla Murphy honoured by British Guild of Travel Writers

Hilary Bradt (L) and Dervla Murphy (R)

On March 8th, International Women’s Day, the British Guild of Travel Writers announced that they were celebrating Dervla Murphy by honouring her with a BGTW Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to travel writing. Dervla was nominated for this honour by BGTW member Hilary Bradt, who said of her career:

“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. Her 26 fascinating books are a secondary consideration, a natural outcome of her desire to share her experiences and political views (politics are as interesting to her as other lands and cultures).

Dervla’s rejection of comfort is well known, and this has enabled her to travel and live as close to rural people in the developing world as is possible for an outsider. In her 88th year this award is richly deserved.”

Jasper Winn in conversation with Dervla Murphy at Engage Arts Festival

Jasper Winn

Jasper Winn

Our good friend Jasper Winn is reprising his double act with Dervla Murphy this weekend at the Engage Arts Festival in Bandon, County Cork. Apologies for the short notice but perhaps some of our Ireland based followers will be able to attend. They appear at Bandon Grammar School on Sunday 27 September at 4.30 pm.

Jasper tells me he is currently working on a book about his time living with Berbers, and in October will be ‘setting off with a writer friend as his muleteer on a three week walk across England. I reckon it’s going to be fun.’ I have no doubt and will keep people updated.

Details of the Bandon Festival can be found here.


Dervla Murphy: ‘Older travellers are now more intrepid than the young’

Dervla Murphy

This makes great reading for those of us who are growing old, or who wish to grow old, disgracefully! Perhaps it is actually gracefully?

by Dervla Murphy

First published in the Telegraph, 23 September 2015

In her late 30s, Jane Austen serenely prepared for imminent middle age and soon was dressing as a maiden aunt with no hope of losing her maidenhood. Yet many of her relatives and friends lived energetically into their 80s and 90s; so why, 200 years ago, was middle age allowed to take over at 40? Was the bible to blame?

Until recently, its general prognosis seemed realistic: three-score years and 10, if you were lucky. My own generation took this ration so much for granted that I now feel absurdly smug about being 13 years into overtime. True, these last few years have revealed several tiresome worn parts, but the underlying logic here – that all machines wear out – makes restricted physical activity seem tolerable. And this despite the fact that the wanderlust, unlike other lusts, does not diminish with age.

For this reason I always feel one should avoid, for as long as possible, casual visits to the doctor. He/she is too likely to take blood samples, diagnose problems you haven’t yet noticed, prescribe medicines that benefit only Big Pharma and advise you not to go where you want to go.

In 1992, when I decided to cycle from Nairobi to Cape Town, my family and friends made no comment; it was the sort of thing Dervla did. Only a few anxious acquaintances, and sceptical interviewing journalists, drew my attention to the fact that I was 61; it wasn’t yet trendy to witter on about “40 being 60” and “80 being 60”.
In fact, ever since the bicycle was invented, cyclists have kept pedalling into their old age. Quite often one hears of grannies and grandads cycling across the United States or Canada, or from Helsinki to Gibraltar, or from Mexico to Patagonia. That’s the convenient thing about non-competitive cycling (or walking): the more of it you do, on a daily basis, the longer you can keep doing it.

Before affluence hit Ireland, many GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) fans from my home town of Lismore thought nothing of cycling over the Knockmealdown mountains, on bicycles without gears, to an important hurling match in Thurles. They set out at sunrise and arrived home in the summer dusk having pedalled 120 miles. Now their grandchildren motor to fetch the milk from the corner.

Read the entire article here.


Dervla Murphy in conversation with Jasper Winn, 8 July

dervla-murphy460_1670571cJasper Winn is a good friend of the blog and it seems he is to appear at Waterstones, Cork in conversation with Dervla Murphy on Wednesday 8th July at 7pm. For details phone 021 4276522.

Dervla Murphy will also be appearing at the Junction Festival in Clonmel on Monday 6th July at 7pm. For more information go to: The Junction Festival

And at the ‘Literary Brunch’ West Cork Literary Festival on Saturday 18th July with Anthony Sattin. For more information go to: West Cork Literary Festival

In November you can catch Dervla in London at the Slightly Foxed Readers Day, at the Art Workers Guild, Bloomsbury on Saturday 7th November. For more information go to: Slightly Foxed.