Dervla Murphy, the intrepid Waterford-born travel writer, died on May 22. She was 90. Back in 2019, she smiled broadly as she told me how she had already planned for her death; not that she was on the brink of it or fearful of it. Emphysema, which she said was the punishment for years of smoking, and osteoarthritis in her neck had put a halt to her writing, preventing her from typing, but she was in great spirits.
“I’m lucky to be able to enjoy life through books and music,” she said. “I live a life of the mind, and that’s exactly what I want.”
She had no time, she said, for consumer society. “I always wanted to make do with as little as possible. So, I asked a friend to make a coffin from driftwood. I’ll show it to you.”
In a sheltered part of her yard in Lismore, beside an old bicycle and among other bits and bobs, there was a plain coffin with the lid nailed down. She pointed to it with pride, took another sip of her beer, and we laughed.
This was typical of Dervla — practical, utterly unique and indomitably cheerful, even about her demise.
Dervla Murphy came to fame for her brilliant first book Full Tilt, which chronicled her six-month solo journey from Ireland to India by bicycle in 1963. She called her bike, Roz. Full Tilt was the first of many books over five decades in which she travelled to remote areas and engaged with the people. Her warm manner, deep laugh and ability to listen were instrumental in finding out the stories. She travelled to more than 30 countries, including such far-flung places as Siberia, Baltistan, Peru and Ethiopia. She stopped only when she was no longer physically capable of the journeys.
Dervla’s dream of travelling began on her 10th birthday when she received a present of an atlas from her grandfather and a second-hand bicycle. “One day I cycled up a hill and I thought, if I went for long enough, turning the pedals around, I’d get to India. It just seemed like a nice long cycle. I never spoke about it to anyone because I knew the reaction would be ‘another childish fantasy’. I always knew that I’d get to India someday.”
She grew up in Lismore, in a home steeped in books and music. Her father, Fergus, was the county librarian but her mother, Kathleen, suffered ill-health after childbirth. “When my mother was 24, not long after my birth, the poor woman was struck with rheumatoid arthritis. I never saw her stand or walk and she ended up in a wheelchair. But she was a wonderful woman. She was so active mentally and she taught me so much about writing.”
Her parents always asked that she would write stories for their birthdays. A few months later her mother would critique them, and Dervla welcomed this advice as she wanted to write a novel. She tried writing three, but finally moved on from fiction.
When she was 14, her mother’s health deteriorated. Dervla was summoned from her boarding school in the Ursuline Covent and became her mother’s chief carer. It was during the war and the family couldn’t get a nurse. “It was she who first suggested that I get on my bike and cycle around Europe for a month each summer to visit museums and go to operas. I don’t think in Ireland back then there were many mothers telling their solitary daughters to get on their bike and go. I was 17. It was quite revolutionary really.
“I suppose she was making up for the fact that she was so physically inactive. She said, ‘If you really want to do something, you can do it’.”
Dervla minded her invalid mother for 16 years. As time passed, her dreams of India were fading. When her father died in 1961, she took to the bottle. She drank whiskey and chain-smoked. Her spirits plummeted as her mother’s illness caused her to become more difficult. She had to share a bed with her mother, to turn her, and the years of unbroken sleep were taking their toll. Life was so bleak that she even thought about taking her mother’s life.
When Kathleen Murphy finally died in August 1962, Dervla felt tremendous relief. Finally, she was free to pursue her dream.
At the age of 31, on January 14, 1965 she set off for India, packing a .25 pistol for her protection. It was the coldest winter in the whole of the 20th century. Nothing would deter her, not even the icicles which dangled from her nose. “I’d been waiting for so long to be free to go. I just couldn’t bear to postpone it any longer.”
She removed the three gears from her bike, deciding they’d be more trouble than they were worth, packed some extra inner tubes and posted others on to embassies abroad, but she couldn’t fix a puncture.
“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 didn’t speak any other languages. “Not a syllable,” she told me, cheerfully. Blessed with a sanguine temperament, she simply got on with her solo travels. She survived malaria, brucellosis, gout, body lice and more. She fought off a pack of wolves with her pistol and dealt with a policeman, who had more than a legal interest in her, by kneeing him in the groin.
“You don’t have to make a big thing of it, you just do it,” she said.
When people were fearful for her, she’d reply with, “I don’t see why you should be daunted.” And she hated being called courageous. “You’re not courageous if you don’t have fear. I was fearless. If you don’t feel fear, you don’t have to be brave. I’m a born optimist, and I was simply enjoying myself.
“I always wanted to be alone, even as a child. I enjoyed human company, but on the whole I wanted to be alone. As a child, I knew three things — I wanted to write, I wanted to travel and I was never going to marry. I always had a feeling that I never wanted to be permanently linked and that I would never share my life with anyone.”
She was right on all three counts. At 37, she gave birth to Rachel. The father was Terence de Vere White, the late literary editor of The Irish Times. He was married and had children but he suggested having a baby with Dervla.
“He said, ‘I wonder what a child of ours would be like?’ and I said, I said, ‘Let’s go for it and find out.’ I was thrilled when I discovered I was pregnant. I was 36 and I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I made the rule that I would be totally responsible for the baby.”
Being a single mother in Ireland in those days could have been difficult, but Dervla’s attitude changed all that. “The whole point was I didn’t care, and as a result I came up against absolutely no unpleasantness. I genuinely didn’t give a damn what anybody thought, and that was my protection.”
That was how she lived her entire life — totally on her own terms. She didn’t bat an eyelid on travels when people asked her where her daughter’s father was. She happily brought Rachel to India for her fifth birthday, and did many more trips with her. She used to swim nude in the River Blackwater each morning, and would regularly lock herself away at home for months at a time to write her books — “being in purdah”, as she called it. She loved the solitude. “It’s wonderfully peaceful,” she said.
A life well travelled and well lived, at all times true to herself.