BEFORE intrepid travel writer Dervla Murphy was born, her mother met a Romany woman in England who predicted that she would marry a small, slim, dark man and would live among trees and endure a long illness.
She was told she would only have one child, a daughter, who would be famous.
In her disarmingly frank autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels, published in 1979, Murphy writes that she never wanted to be famous but hoped that the fortune teller’s “blanket term covered authorship”.
And so it came to pass. Murphy’s mother, married to a librarian posted to picturesque leafy Lismore, Co Waterford, contracted rheumatoid arthritis when Murphy was two years old. She was looked after by her daughter who left school at 14 to become a sometimes reluctant carer for the next 16 years until her mother’s death.
Murphy, who celebrates her 80th birthday on November 28, has led an extraordinary life and is famous for having cycled all over the world and written 24 books about her adventures. But being in the public eye doesn’t sit easily with this reclusive woman.
“I hate the limelight. I feel uncomfortable with it.”
A documentary on Murphy’s life was screened earlier this year on TG4, but she purposely didn’t watch it. While there’s a curiosity about this pioneering woman, Murphy really just wants to be left alone to get on with her writing.
“I don’t think I’m shy in the sense of ordinary situations, but I can be when I have to occasionally appear in public at literary festivals, which I hate. I love my own company, which is very convenient for a writer.”
Murphy ferociously guards her privacy in her peculiar home in Lismore. At the appointed time, I turn up at the high, wrought iron gate, which is locked with a thick chain. Murphy appears, unlocks the chain and leads me down a cobble-stoned avenue, introducing me to her three frisky little dogs. Her dwelling is actually four different buildings, each housing one or two rooms. Her neat living area is functional, almost austere, with rows and rows of books neatly stacked in a book case. There is no television set. “I wouldn’t have one in the house,” she says, offering me a beer. I demur. While she goes to the kitchen to fetch some beer for herself, I look at the books. There’s one opened on the table — Bush in Babylon by Tariq Ali. There are books on Ghandi, the Balkans, China, Rwanda and the Middle East.
“I don’t have the time to read novels,” she says, drinking from a can of Bavaria. “What I read is getting more political. It has become much more difficult to find remote places to travel to and write about.” She doesn’t cycle when abroad anymore.
Murphy is working on a book about the Middle East, having lived in Palestine’s biggest refugee camp, Balata, in 2009, for three months, as well as spending time in Israel, as part of her research.
She supports the Palestinian cause. She was impressed with Cuba’s health and education systems when she lived there to research her most recently published book, The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba.
She supported Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness in the presidential election. But Murphy objects to being described as left-wing. “We should be dropping those terms. The world is in too serious a state to be playing around with those almost-19th century terms. I mean, do we care about the planet or don’t we?” she asks. Murphy’s cares include animals. There is an anti-hare coursing banner on her window.
It was caring for her invalid mother, despite the difficulties, that prompted Murphy to have a child. She says she always knew she would never marry. “In spite of all I’ve said about wanting to be alone, I think I missed having a responsibility to somebody else, which I’d had for almost the first 30 years of my life.”
Murphy’s relationship with the late Terence de Vere White, who was literary editor of the Irish Times and a writer, resulted in the planned birth of Rachel in 1968. Asked if it was tough being a single mother back then, Murphy says: “It wasn’t in the slightest bit tough because it didn’t bother me. I knew the neighbours would be talking, but I didn’t care. I didn’t think they’d be talking unkindly. But I wasn’t there to be got at. I was just so thrilled to have Rachel.”
Rachel accompanied her mother on some of her travels. She lives in Italy, where she is married to an English/Welsh man and has three daughters. Murphy visits the family as often as she can.
When talking to a female travel writer who has been everywhere from India to Siberia, the question of personal safety inevitably comes up. But Murphy plays down her brushes with danger. However, on page nine of her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, she reveals an incredible encounter. About to be attacked by wolves, two of which had attached themselves to her body, Murphy, who was carrying a revolver, promptly shot them.
Asked what was her scariest experience, Murphy relates an incident in Ethiopia. “For about five minutes, I really did think I was going to be murdered. I was robbed by bandits right on the edge of a lake. They were discussing whether to drown me. Although they weren’t speaking in English, I knew what they were saying. In the end, they decided not to kill me.”
What went through Murphy’s head on this occasion? “I just thought I was incredibly lucky to have been born.”
Murphy is physically hardy, “fearless and optimistic”. She is generally trusting of people. “I’d like my granddaughters to be trusting of most human beings. But you’ve got to remember that my travels were in fairly remote rural areas. I wouldn’t want the girls to be overly trusting in urban situations in the 21st century.”
Murphy’s philosophy on life is informed by Buddhism. “I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but I consider Buddhism to be the way of thinking that has influenced me most. I like the fact that it isn’t like Judaism and Christianity and Islamism. It doesn’t have that bullying thing which those other religions unfortunately have.”
While Murphy can look back on a life well lived, she has had her troubles. When her father died when she was 29, Murphy, left alone to care for her increasingly demanding mother, had what she describes as “a total breakdown. I was drinking whiskey and chain-smoking and not eating. That’s all I can say because the period is otherwise a blank. If I could remember the details, it might continue to undermine me. Not remembering is a sort of defence.”
How would Murphy like to be remembered? “I don’t expect to be remembered. There’s no reason why people can’t do what I did. What’s stopping them?”
The nine-to-five job, I suggest. “Yes. I am conscious of having been terribly lucky to be able to learn a living doing the two things I most enjoy — travelling and writing.
“If I am to be remembered, I’d like to be remembered as someone who was interested in the ordinary people of whatever country I was in.”
A modest wish for one of Ireland’s most fascinating writers.
To mark Dervla Murphy’s 80th birthday, Eland has the following titles in print: Wheels Within Wheels; Tibetan Foothold, The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal; Where the Indus is Young: A Winter in Baltistan; Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, and The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba.