The gift of a second-hand bicycle spurred a lifelong passion for the author, who died this week aged 90. Her daring trips would be an inspiration
‘If visas had been needed in 1492, America would never have been discovered,” Dervla Murphy once said, describing how she disregarded the need for official documentation whenever she couldn’t come by it on her travels to “far-flungery”.
There was something irresistible about this freewheeling travel writer who was always willing to rough it in her quest to see the world from the saddle of a bicycle. She was enterprising, swashbuckling, intrepid and spontaneous. No wonder her life took her from one adventure to the next.
Her journeys influenced future generations of women travel writers and pilgrim souls: inspired by her willingness to go off exploring on a shoestring budget for the sheer joy of being on the road — for the excitement of discovery, and to satisfy her curiosity.
Memorably, the New York Times characterised Murphy as having an “almost Monty Python-like stiff upper lip” — not to mention cast-iron determination — both of which come across in more than 25 books such as Muddling Through in Madagascar and Through Siberia by Accident.
Injuries sustained over five-and-then-some decades on the road included tick bite fever in South Africa, a fractured coccyx and broken foot in Romania, triple tooth abscesses in Cameroon, gout in Madagascar and a dog bite in Belfast. But was she daunted? Not Dervla.
Her writing had humour, colour, insight and the kind of detail and intimacy that allowed readers to share her worm’s eye view. She ate anything and everything and liked what she saw, the more unusual the better. In her novel The Bull from the Sea, Mary Renault says: “It is the mark of little men to like only what they know; one step beyond and they feel the black cold of chaos.” Dervla savoured that one step beyond.
Born in Lismore, Co Waterford in 1931, the town to which she always pointed her pedals for home, Murphy was a rare human being. I met her once, in 2015, and was acutely conscious that I was in the presence of a living legend. We were both on the bill at the Omagh Literary Festival, where her talk attracted a packed audience.
Out she strode on to the stage; surprisingly sprightly for 83, still travelling and writing about it. The audience was spellbound by her physical presence — she was sturdy, vigorous and white-haired — and by her vivid turn of phrase and recollection of the twists and turns of her journeys.
It was quite clear she was a truth teller. She was also good humoured, understated, unaffected, principled and had strong opinions about the world.
It emerged that she ate only once a day, at 6am, although she still enjoyed a glass of beer in the evening, particularly Guinness. Indeed, some admirers brought along bottles of beer and presented her with them after her talk, and she opened them to share then and there. She seemed at home in Omagh, although she was the kind of person who could fit in anywhere.
But Lismore was a special place for Dervla. In the course of the question-and-answer session at her talk, she spoke of her love for her hometown, saying she wouldn’t live anywhere but west Waterford, regardless of all the beautiful and exotic places she had travelled to.
Her father was county librarian in Lismore, and she had a bookish childhood where writing was encouraged. Her parents used to ask their daughter, an only child, to write them a short story or essay as a Christmas present. Her father had been jailed for IRA membership as a young man, and she recalled an IRA man on the run (who was later hanged) being sheltered in the family home.
She was sent to board at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, but brought home at 14 to look after her invalid mother. This was her primary duty for the next 16 years, with a month off each year to go on cycling trips to places such Spain and France — glamorous enough in the 1950s, but they didn’t quite fit the “far-flungery” category. She financed these jaunts by writing about them for Irish newspapers. During those years she also attempted to write novels but said she realised she “didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist”.
In 1963, her duties at home came to an end and the four points of the compass were waiting for her to explore. Off she set on a mammoth solo expedition to India on her Armstrong Cadet men’s bicycle, which she dubbed Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. It was a journey she had decided first to undertake as a child. “I liked the idea that if I just kept going I would get there… It was a bit of a thing in the family and I definitely do remember feeling very determined at the time,” she said.
The gift of a second-hand bicycle for her 10th birthday and an atlas, also pre-loved, were hinge moments in her life.
Her ambition came to pass. With little more than a change of underwear and pistol for protection, she crossed the Channel and at Dunkirk turned her wheels into the white, whirling fury of a snowstorm. Her trip took her through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She studied her atlas and chose her route with care: Paris, Milan, Venice, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul, Tehran, Kabul, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Delhi, keeping a journal on the way. It was a trek of 4,500 miles on a bike with quarter-inch tyres and nearly flat handlebars which weighed 64 pounds with her luggage and 36 pounds without. As a precaution, she despatched spare tyres to cities along her intended route.
Murphy’s account was published in 1965 as Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle — her first book and a classic of travel literature. During her 175-day endurance test — not that she would have regarded it as such — she slept in youth hostels, mud huts, police barracks, factories, pagodas, dormitories, palaces, tents, bungalows, teahouses and in the open. After a hard day’s pedalling, she could have slept on a clothesline.
The kindness of strangers provided her with a berth time after time. Somewhere between Kabul and Jalalabad, she thought she was dreaming when she woke from a roadside nap to find that nomads had raised a tent to shield her from the sun.
As she beat her way along, punctures were the least of her perils. She was attacked by wild dogs or possibly wolves, washed off the road by an avalanche of thawing snow, had ribs fractured by an accidental rifle butt to the chest in a melee, fought off an amorous policeman, came down with dysentery and fired her pistol at bicycle thieves.
Dangerous situations were not uncommon, but on the plus side, her bicycle allowed her to take tracks that a four-wheeled vehicle could never have negotiated. No wonder her travel books were exceptional. Early photos show a woman with strong, tanned legs and a haversack on her back, prepared to travel to the ends of the earth with only the basics in her saddlebag.
Many other books followed that first one, full of her trademark ability to engage in conversations with locals and elicit fascinating personal stories. Her wanderlust was paused in 1968 when she had a daughter, Rachel, fathered by the writer and literary editor of the Irish Times, Terence de Vere White. But when Rachel was nearly five, off she went on her rambles, daughter in hand.
On travelling with Rachel, she wrote: “A child’s presence emphasises your trust in the community’s goodwill. And because children pay little attention to racial or cultural differences, junior companions rapidly demolish barriers of shyness or apprehension often raised when foreigners unexpectedly approach a remote village.” In other words, it was a bonus.
In 1979, Murphy won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs prize for A Place Apart, a book published the previous year about Northern Ireland in which she recounted a series of interviews and conversations with people on both sides of the divide. During the height of the Troubles, she had simply ridden her bike over the Border. It was her first time in the North, an anomaly referenced in the title, despite having been to Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
Some of the worlds she evoked so vibrantly no longer exist, making her work a precious social history. Often, hers was the first white face ever seen by the people she encountered.
When asked about seeing the world, she urged slow travel and travelling light (making space for good maps and a compass). She distinguished between travellers and tourists. In what sounds like her personal credo, she said: “Whatever happens, you can’t chicken out. You’re alone where you’ve chosen to be, and must take the consequences.”
In time, she became dissatisfied with her earlier travel books that told the story of the journey, and began to write works that moved beyond personal impressions to the bigger picture. Possibly A Place Apart was the turning point. Books such as Tales from Two Cities: Travels of Another Sort delved into racial tension and urban deprivation in Britain. She was in Romania two weeks after Ceausescu’s fall for Transylvania and Beyond; Rwanda not long after the genocide for Visiting Rwanda; and South Africa immediately post-apartheid for South from the Limpopo.
Some of her readers disapproved of her interest in geopolitics but others welcomed it. “My view is that I have these things I want to say and I don’t really care if it spoils a pure travel book,” she said.
In 2004, she agreed to a piece of her travel writing being included in a charity book to raise funds for a Uganda hospital. Travelling Light was devised and edited by my writer friend Sarah Webb, who said: “She was all for supporting women and she was kind to younger writers.” They communicated by letter — Murphy’s preference; and, indeed, the piece she contributed was in the form of a letter. Titled Letter to Niamh, it took the form of a dispatch from a refugee camp in Rwanda two years after the Tutu massacre. “I saw numerous frightening faces — with killers’ eyes. I’ve seen similar faces elsewhere: in Croatia, in South Africa, in Northern Ireland,” she wrote. She knew life, met it in the raw, and was unafraid to look it in the face.
The poet WH Auden advised: “See the world now, before it all looks like Kennedy Airport.” His counsel wasn’t designed specifically for Murphy but she lived by that philosophy. We can’t all travel to remote locations, but we can do it virtually, step by step with Dervla Murphy when we read her books, which are destined to live on after her.
Martina Devlin’s latest book is ‘Edith: A Novel’ from The Lilliput Press
Edited extract from the Irish Independent, November 29, 1968
Dervla Murphy lives in a bungalow beyond Lismore’s Presentation convent. A dog barked inside as I rang the bell and she came to the door to shake hands before inviting me in.
“I hardly ever read newspapers,” she said as we sat down in the plainly furnished living room with a big picture window facing the road. “They make you worry about problems, like Biafra, which you just can’t cure. I think they’re responsible, along with television, for turning people into neurotics.”
She is a 37-year-old country girl with strong — and sometimes strange — opinions and many daring achievements to her credit. She has cycled alone to India, worked with refugees in Nepal, roamed across the highlands of Abyssinia and faced enough excitement to keep the average woman happy for a century.
When I mentioned the difference between Dervla Murphy the traveller and the quiet Dervla Murphy at home, she smiled a little sadly. “People who meet me after reading my books are surprised sometimes at the difference. I can’t explain it really.”
She lives full-time by writing at home in Lismore. Her income is adequate but then her needs are very few. Alone, except for a Tibetan sheepdog, she works long hours at her desk in writing the travel books that many enjoy.
“People think that a writer has a leisurely existence. Well, I work a 70-hour week every week. I usually get up about 5.30am and work through to 10 at night, with walks with the dog to break up the day.”
Being self-effacing, she tries to correct any impression of boasting. “I like to write and that’s why I put in the hours. This is the way I want to live.”
A solitary life (she has few visitors) is what she prefers and may in fact provide a personal clue as to why she travels to such distant places. “I like to visit places as remote and far away as possible. I don’t object to people but I think that civilisation can have a very bad effect on some human beings.”
Cycling though Turkey and Iran, Dervla met many hazards but refused to categorise them as being typical of one country or people.
“There’s very little difference in people in any part of the world. And nothing ever happened to me in any one country which could not happen in any other country.”
Because of this belief in the decency of people, she feels no foreboding about travelling anywhere. “When something bad occurs, I get very scared — more so than most — but when it’s over, I forget all about it. That’s my guiding force.”
Her friendliness and sense of humour are obvious. She can also feel angered at the slow death which is creeping over small towns in many parts of rural Ireland.
“That crowd up in Dublin don’t care what’s happening in places like this. The young people are leaving and they won’t be coming home because there’s nothing here for them. Shops close down and fall into decay, everything is going downhill. It’s devastating to watch what’s happening here.”
As I left, I said, half-joking: “I don’t suppose you’ll read when I write?” “You’re probably right,” she said politely but a little vaguely. “I don’t suppose I will.”