Friday 19 December 2014

Dervla Murphy: Living life on her own terms

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.

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."

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