Dervla Murphy: Living life on her own terms
Published 12/11/2012 | 06:00
The author Dervla Murphy has never been one for convention, be it cycling solo to India or being a single mother in Co Waterford -- both in the mid-Sixties. She turns 81 later this month, but has no intention of slowing down, she tells Ciara Dwyer
'When I was eight, I saw a horse with its penis extended," says Dervla Murphy. "I thought I had committed a mortal sin." The Waterford-born writer watches me laugh at this, before putting me straight.
"It was no laughing matter," she says. "I was convinced that I'd be going to hell and hell had been vividly described." Thanks to the nuns in her local convent school, Dervla was filled with all sorts of terrors about sex and the devil. She got herself into such a state that her mother took her out of school and educated her at home, until it was time to go to secondary school. That troubled little girl is now a robust, cheerful grey-haired woman who has spent her life travelling the world by bike or by foot, and writing about it.
"I often think how extraordinarily lucky I am to have always been able to earn a sufficient living for my frugal way of life by doing what I enjoy doing most -- writing and travelling," she says. "It really is a huge slice of luck and I do appreciate it."
On a wet and windy day, full of floods and road closures, I made my way from Dublin to visit Dervla in her home in Lismore, Co Waterford. If ever there was a person worthy of that trek, it is Dervla Murphy, a brilliant woman who eventually ended up living her life on her own terms; she never followed conventional rules for life and she's not about to start now.
This is a woman who grew up eating raw liver and doing little endurance tests -- such as putting her feet in boiling water -- to see if she could block out any feeling of pain. There is no one quite like her. Few 80-year-old Irish women would say: "We're so screwed up about sex in this country because of the Catholic Church. We've no idea of the damage that has been done over the generations." She was never afraid to speak her mind. Yet it's surprising the number of Irish people who don't know her story.
After the death of her invalid mother, whom she looked after, Dervla was free to pursue her childhood dream of going to India on her bicycle. And so, she set off. The year was 1963 and Dervla was 31. Her solo journey took six months to complete and cost 64 pounds. She wrote about it in her best-selling book: Full Tilt.
Nowadays, a woman going to India alone is so commonplace that it's almost a cliche. The usual type heads off in search of something and ends up in an ashram talking to chancer gurus. Then it is turned into a film starring Julia Roberts. Dervla is a different breed altogether -- beyond tough. She's the sort of woman who rattles off the injuries and illnesses she caught on her travels as if they are items on a shopping list -- malaria, brucellosis, broken ribs and severe damage to the knee. For the middle three months of her first and only pregnancy with her daughter Rachel (now 43), she headed off to Istanbul. The doctors wanted her to stay at home for fortnightly check-ups, to which her reply was: "You must be joking." Instead, she went her own sweet way, coming across the start of hippie trail, watching girls who were paying their way by sleeping with men. They thought she was crazy for not doing the same, but she was mystified by their supposed liberation with the Pill, which had just come on the market.
Usually, when she is not off travelling on her bike or by foot, she is at home writing her books about the places she has seen -- Peru, Cuba, Ethiopia and Siberia, to name but a few. Her favourite country is Afghanistan because she tells me that the people there are "my kind of people".
Many would call her courageous, but she hates the epithet. "You're not courageous if you don't have fear, and I was fearless. I was simply enjoying myself."
And she still does enjoy herself.
Rising at 5am every day, she has a huge breakfast of homemade muesli and kippers and her own brown bread, which she bakes. Then she heads off with her dogs for a long walk down by the Blackwater River. She thinks it's the most beautiful place in the world and would never like to live anywhere else permanently.
Her great love of her home place has nothing to do with patriotic or nationalistic leanings, she tells me, but quite simply this is her territory. She sits at her desk by 8.30 every morning, and works through until she goes to bed at 9.30pm. (At the moment she is writing a book about her time in Gaza -- she was there for a month.) Breakfast is her only meal.
She tells me that she could happily go without seeing people for months on end. When she is living like this, she refers to it as "being in purdah". Today she is breaking purdah and as if to mark it, she gets out the beer -- two cans of Bavaria. By the end of our time together, she phones a friend, asking her if she wants to come around for a game of Scrabble. Once purdah is broken, she won't get any work done for the rest of the day, especially now that the beer has gone to her head. Tomorrow she will be back to normal. Our reason for meeting is to highlight her public interview on November 13 in Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin as part of the Dublin Book Festival.
The encouragement for the writing and travelling came from her parents. Dervla's father was the county librarian and her mother was a big reader, too. Presents for her 10th birthday -- a second-hand bike and an atlas -- set her on a path for life.
"I just looked at the atlas and I could see that there was very little water in between," she tells me, explaining how she chose her first country. "I thought if I kept pedalling I'd get to India. It just seemed like a nice long cycle."
As the years progressed, she told no one about her big dream, as she knew that they might laugh it off as a childish fantasy. Instead she got an Indian pen friend and learned about the culture from her and the books she recommended. That was all she could do back then, because she had enough on her plate at the time.
Aged 14, Dervla was taken out of boarding school at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford and brought home to look after her mother (it was the time of the war and they couldn't get anybody to mind her). The poor woman had been struck down with rheumatoid arthritis when her daughter was only six months old, dashing her hopes of having five more children. Dervla never saw her mother walking or standing. Instead she spent her time in what she calls a bath chair -- a wheelchair.
In her autobiography, Wheels within Wheels, Dervla writes: "Only when I became a mother myself did I appreciate how my own mother must have felt when she found herself unable to pick me up and hug me and brush my hair, and tuck me up in bed."
Despite these physical difficulties, she proved to be a great mother and never complained about her condition. It was a happy and loving home. Dervla remembers her mother's deep laugh and her constant encouragement.
"She said, 'If you really want to do something, you can do it'."
During the years when Dervla was chief carer at home, she would head off for a month's holiday on her bicycle. These trips were her mother's idea. When she was 16, her mother sent her off to cycle around England and Wales on her own. Later on, she encouraged her to visit Europe to see the great art galleries.
"She was really wonderful," she says. "Imagine in those days in Ireland, a mother telling a 16-year-old, literally, get on your bike. I think she was thinking about how limited a town like Lismore was in those days and she wanted me to be able to compensate for that."
Life took a turn for the worse when Dervla's mother's kidneys were damaged and along with that she became mentally ill.
"She became more dependent on me and her personality changed. She was a different person. It was very, very hard."
Then Dervla's father died in February 1961, after a neglected flu turned into nephritis.
"That was when I took to the bottle," she says, remembering her 29-year-old self.
There seemed like there was no way out. By that stage, Dervla had to sleep in the same room as her mother to change her position at night. The broken sleep from all this nursing took its toll on her. She drank hard and chain-smoked and on dark days when she was feeling particularly trapped, she even thought about ending her mother's life.
There was no need. Her mother died in August 1962 and, from then on, Dervla was free to pursue her dream.
"I always knew I'd get to India some day," she says.
And so began a new life where she travelled with her bike, which she christened Roz.
I presume she knew how to fix a puncture?
"No," she mumbles. "Not a hope. It was like mathematics -- I never tried to learn. Now that's where the men came in. I'd sit down at the side of the road until a suitable man came along. I carried a spare tube and spare everything for other people to put in. One day in Afghanistan I had nine punctures."
She laughs and admits that she still doesn't know how to fix a puncture.
Dervla tells me that she never had any romances when she was on her travels, but that didn't mean that she couldn't appreciate the beauty of different races.
"In India, all their features and bone structures seemed to be so much finer. When I came back to Europe after India, the first thing that struck me was what an ugly race the Europeans on the whole are; obviously there are exceptions, but compared to the average Indian most of us look as if somebody stood on us when we were born."
As a traveller, Dervla didn't seem to get into much danger.
"There was only one time in my life when I felt my life was threatened. It was in Ethiopia. The Bregenz robbed me and I knew they were debating whether to kill me or not. I thought, perhaps this is it. I remember thinking -- short life but a sweet life. I was 33."
When Dervla was 37, she gave birth to Rachel. The father was Terence de Vere White, the late literary editor of the Irish Times. He already had a wife and children in Dublin, but Dervla tells me that they were separated by then.
"I don't really want to go into my love life," she says.
But I ask her to clarify a few facts, otherwise it's possible to come to all sorts of wrong conclusions.
Was the pregnancy deliberate?
"Absolutely, it was no accident. It was wonderful. I just felt so happy."
When I ask if she became pregnant because she wanted to be a mother, or was it because she wanted to have a child with this man, she replies: "The latter, of course.
"But I didn't want a man in my life full-time, definitely not. Ever since I was a child, I knew that I would write and that I would never marry. I had that fixed in my mind. I'm just a solitary creature. I can't imagine sharing daily life with a man, no matter how much I loved him. But I didn't think that this was anyone's business."
How solo was this experience? Does that mean that she had to do it all alone, that Terence wasn't there for the birth and that it was father unknown on the birth certificate?
"Oh, no. He was there, absolutely."
Being a single mother back then must have been difficult.
"I think it was interesting living in a little town like this. You can imagine the sensation in 1968."
Were tongues wagging?
"The whole point was I didn't care and, as a result, I came up against absolutely no unpleasantness. I think this is rather like a herd thing.
"Let's say an animal breaks a leg. If it seems worried about that, the rest of the herd will turn on it, but if it picks itself up and staggers on, on its own, it won't be turned on.
"I think if I had come back here trying to conceal it -- not that I could have, I was huge -- if that was my mental attitude, it might have been quite different. But I genuinely didn't give a damn what anybody thought and that was my protection."
Before she became pregnant, she decided that, if that happened, she would stay home for the first five years of her child's life. She had no problem giving up travelling for a while, but she knew it was impossible for her not to write.
During those years at home she wrote Wheels Within Wheels. It was never intended for publication; rather it was written especially for Rachel, to explain her family background. As a result, it is a refreshingly unguarded book.
Dervla went on to take Rachel with her on her travels, but when her daughter turned 18, she knew that these adventures would stop. The dynamic of the relationship had changed and now it was two fully formed adults on the road.
Also, it was a different experience. If you are a pair, the locals don't approach you as easily. Rachel now lives in Trento, Italy with her husband and their three children. Dervla enjoys being a grandmother and likes to go to visit them, but she tells me: "I don't get over to see them as much as I'd like to. I'm usually so busy working," she says.
The day she takes up bingo, we'll know it's all over.
Inspiring Lives, Inspiring Stories -- Dervla Murphy and Alice Taylor in conversation with Sean Rocks in association with Dublin Unesco City of Literature takes place on Tuesday, November 13, 8pm-9.30pm at Smock Alley Theatre, Temple Bar, Dublin as part of the Dublin Book Festival November 13-18. Tickets €10, €8 concession. For booking phone 01-677-0014 www.dublinbookfestival.com
Sunday Indo Living