Dervla Murphy: an appreciation of the great Irish travel writer who died aged 90 | Travel

The last time I saw Dervla was a few years ago, before the lockdown, when she invited me to lunch at her home in Lismore, County Waterford. The meal was a pleasantly liquid affair. One of Dervla’s great passions was beer. If Thesiger could cross the Empty Quarter just for a glass of water, Dervla was happy to cross Rwanda just for the pleasure of a glass of African stout.

Bottle in hand and holding court on a couch with that familiar, determined glint in her eye, she complained vigorously about how difficult it was to visit friends or travel with her growing age – although I did point out how much his 80 years had been spent roughing it in difficult areas of Palestine, which produced one final – and beautiful – pair of books.

I was struck by the extent of his library, which stretched from room to room. Most travel writers end up with a shelf or two on their areas of specialization, be it South America or India. But over 20 pounds into a globetrotting career spanning more than half a century, Dervla had traveled the world.

Yet she started relatively late as a writer. Born into a staunchly Republican family in Lismore, she cared for her aging parents until she was 30. Desperate to travel abroad, “like a rubber band stretched to the breaking point”, she catapulted herself to India on a bicycle when she was finally able to leave. Ireland in 1963. Before leaving, she practiced automatic pistol shooting in the hills of County Waterford; then she removed the gears from her trusty bike, the Rocinante, so that there was less risk of making a mistake – even if that must not have made the Afghan passages any easier.

Dervla Murphy, on a bicycle, in India around 1965.

But then – as she once warned me when I complained about a trip – her mantra was that you should never want your trip to be easy, Hugh”. Even by his own strenuous standards, this first trip was quite extraordinary. With just a change of underwear and her pistol, she set off for Istanbul and beyond. The mountain passes were frozen. In Bulgaria, she was attacked by wolves and had to shoot them. The weapon came in handy again later for a warning shot when a Kurd attempted to assault him.

Letters detailing her adventures were sent to Irish friends in installments, but she never expected her words to be published. Arrived in Delhi, she is spotted cycling in the street by Penelope Betjeman, intrigued by this Irishwoman who has just traveled thousands of kilometers solo by land. “Pénélope invited me back to her hotel room to eat canned peaches straight out of the box, as she had no plates.”

The poet’s wife introduced her to British publishing house John Murray, and the result was her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. It was the start of a professional relationship that lasted for decades. Murray has published many other books on his travels in Africa, Laos and just about every cardinal point.

She once told me that it was the writer’s duty to enter into the lives of those they depict: “sleeping on the floor,” as she put it. She felt that her upbringing in rural Ireland had helped her come to terms with considerable deprivation abroad. The whole six month trip to India costs just £64 7s 10d.

Dervla Murphy with her bicycle in Ireland, 1990.
Dervla Murphy with her bicycle in Ireland, 1990. Photograph: Getty Images

On this first trip through Afghanistan on her bicycle, Dervla was appalled to meet foreigners who had never spoken to an Afghan, let alone entered their homes: “All they had done, it was to photograph them. In Full Tilt, she describes meeting a 25-year-old American boy, typical of those she met on the trip: “For them, the trip is more of a get away from rather than move towardsand they seem empty and unhappy and bewildered and pathetically anxious for company, but afraid to commit themselves to an ideal or a cause or another individual.

As a single mother after the birth of her daughter Rachel in 1968 – not easy in 1960s Ireland – she defied convention by insisting on taking the girl wherever she went. “People were like, ‘what do you think you’re doing, taking a helpless girl out into the wilderness of the Andes?'”

The visit to Peru with Rachel – recounted in Eight feet in the Andes: Travels with a mule in an unknown Peru (1983)was, in his words, a turning point. Until then, she had enjoyed the sheer liberation and excitement of the journey, but the hardships endured by the indigenous people made her realize just how harsh conditions were in places like the slums of Lima, with its cholera and its endemic tuberculosis.

Later, she was strongly drawn to countries that were at odds with the rest of the world: Russia, where she rode the Siberian railways at age 70 (she had originally planned to ride a bicycle, but damaged the ankle in a fall); in Cuba with not only his daughter but also his three granddaughters; and in her later books on Palestine for Eland Books, which took over when she left Murray’s in 2008 (“I Got Too Political”) and was superbly supportive.

Drinking a glass of Guinness with Hugh Thomson in 2008.
Drinking a glass of Guinness with Hugh Thomson in 2008. Photography: Hugh Thomson

As I reread the books, after the sadness of his death, the best ones still seem, like his first, letters home. What stands out most is her consistent honesty: she was the most reliable narrator and a master of direct reporting. She also had this rare ability to put herself in the shoes of a country and to listen well. In Russia, she confided in herself as a grandmother babushka that others may not have – “so there are at least some benefits to getting older! she assured me.

Unusually for travel writers, she never accepted a commission for a book before leaving on a trip, preferring to wait and see if she found anything interesting to say – an example that others could usefully follow.

She certainly enjoyed reporting inconvenient truths. She argued that women enjoyed much greater freedom under the Soviets in Afghanistan or under Saddam in Iraq than at other times in those countries.

Despite the many tributes that have been paid in recent days, it is important to remember that, during her lifetime, Dervla was often considered anti-establishment and abused. His book on Northern Ireland in the 1970s, A Place Apart, was inevitably polemical and far from the watered-down version of Kenneth Branagh’s recent Belfast. When, a few years ago, I tried to persuade the BBC to make a film about Dervla’s achievements, I met with resistance and, to my great sadness, they never did. She reveled in a certain anti-authoritarian and mischievous attitude, and her books bear witness to this.

I once asked Dervla if she felt elegiac for the planet. “Well, let’s face it, it’s hard to be optimistic.” And she raised a glass.

In return, I return my drink to her: to a wonderfully iconoclastic and daring traveler, and loyal friend, who wrote it as she saw it and maintained her adventurous spirit to the end. Maybe a glass of home-brewed Ethiopian beer tallapoured from a pot of fresh earth.

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