In front of me Dervla Murphy places a bowl of homemade soup that is as honest as she is herself. When meeting a world-renowned doyenne of travel writing, I don’t necessarily expect warm hospitality, but that’s exactly what I get. As she approaches her 90th birthday, she is surrounded by books and warmed by her beloved dog and two cats.
Dervla begins each day in her west Waterford home extremely early, fuelling her body with a big breakfast and her mind with news from BBC Radio 4, Al Jazeera, and online newspapers such as Haaretz. She says that “the internet is a huge advantage for me now, when I’m so restricted in my movements. I can see the world through Al Jazeera’s eyes”. Her physical travels have come to an end now, but her intellectual travels continue. She still reads voraciously, writes shorter pieces, and reviews books.
She is far more interested in asking me questions about current events — really difficult ones, I might add — than answering any of mine. She has shelved most of her travel memories and my questions are sometimes answered with an exasperated “I can’t remember!” After all, for more than 50 years, she has had roughly a trip and a resulting book every two years — adventurous yet highly disciplined. It is a truly astounding legacy. It is such a cliche to say that if she were a man, she would be much more fêted in Ireland. However, cliches exist for a reason.
Dervla has defied all convention, quietly. She has always lived exactly on her own terms, regardless of social expectations. Her trips would test the toughest of people, of any gender. Dervla had her daughter Rachel in 1968 as a single woman. She bypassed the strictures of living in Catholic Ireland, enjoying the relative freedom of living on the fringe of social life. Her private life is just that: Private. She has kept her life manageable by shunning celebrity. Rachel accompanied her on several trips over the years, and now her three daughters are Dervla’s pride and joy.
She also defies categorisation. Environmentalism, feminism, socialism, and Buddhism are all influences. However, she is a truly original thinker who could never tolerate an uncritical, pre-conceived formula. She says that she is philosophically a humanist. “People are in control of the world and they need to behave responsibly when exercising that control.”
She rejects the idea that she’s an atheist: “That’s too aggressive a term. I’m not anti any religion. I just never felt the need to adhere to any. I don’t condemn any religion, I only condemn extremism of any kind.” Absolutely uninhibited in conversation, she talks easily about anything from the prevalence of sex tourism in Japan to the latest military technology she read about in Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Her insatiable curiosity about everything keeps her mind fresh. Somehow, the city of Cologne comes up in our chat: “I was there after the war.” She cycled through a flattened Germany in 1949. Unbelievable. While her bicycle wheels have stilled now, her cognitive wheels still speed along at a brisk clip. She approaches any subject with a mind as open as an African savannah.
Her travels have taken her across land to India, Nepal, Tibet, the Himalayas, Cuba, Siberia, the Russian Far East, the Balkans, Transylvania, Laos, Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Peru, Gaza, and Israel, among others.
It is obviously impossible to recount details of all of those trips here. On return from the trips, she would go “into purdah” to write up the forensic book notes, with final manuscripts produced on an electric typewriter.
All the trips have been extreme physical endurance tests, through searing deserts and snow-covered mountain passes. She hates cities. She usually travelled on her bicycle, but sometimes also on mules, as in Ethiopia and in Peru.
One of her scariest times was when she was attacked, beaten, and robbed in Ethiopia. She dealt with crises and disasters with rock-solid common sense and jaunty good humour. Another time was in Belfast in the 1970s, being quite sensibly afraid of a nocturnal cycle through the Antrim Road area of the city.
Dervla objects to the idea that she showed courage in her life. “If you’re fearless, you don’t need courage. It’s only if you’re fearful that you need courage to overcome your fears.”
I persist. “Well, over so many decades of travel, there was very little to alarm me. I might have been shaken at times, but not enough to affect future plans.”
She attributes this fearlessness to her parenting. “At the age of 16, in 1947, it was my mother who suggested that I cycle through the continent alone — not many mothers did that!”
Her books are underpinned by thorough research on the society, geography, and culture of each chosen country. They are peppered with stories of hazardous journeys, mostly on her trusty bicycle. She has broken ribs and gotten hepatitis and dysentery. She was attacked by wolves once and shot them dead. This is what the current generation might term ‘extreme travel’.
Following a visit to Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the power plant that had a partial nuclear meltdown in 1979, she wrote a book criticising nuclear power, which she still detests. These days “climate-worried people are accepting the nuclear industry’s propaganda now that it’s ‘clean’ and the obvious energy solution. What about the miners of the uranium, and what’s to be done about nuclear waste?”
Her book on Northern Ireland, A Place Apart, attempted to get under the skin of the place at the height of the war there. It was highly respected by academics studying the area.
One of my favourites is Tales From Two Cities, in which she dealt with race relations in the north of England. She stayed in Bradford and Birmingham for about three months each. She tiptoed lightly between ethnography, sociology, and journalism, sharing conversations (“chat-shows”) with people she met in pubs and homes. She was truly interested in perceptions, how people felt and why. Research of this magnitude could easily have been the basis of a sociology PhD; lots of academics have built careers on much less.
Further afield, Dervla visited Rwanda not long after the 1994 genocide. After this trip, she said, “Rwanda... forces one to confront the evil inherent in us all, as human beings — however humane and compassionate we may seem as untested individuals… nothing done by humans is inhuman.”
Dervla’s empathetic nature tries to reach the essence of each person, whether mother, miner, or maharaja. She also deplores injustice, as witnessed in her public support for the Palestinian people.
Dervla’s London publisher, Barnaby Rogerson at Eland Publishing, says of her: “Dervla has always upheld the most astonishing integrity and independence which totally complement her craft as a writer.”
He goes on: “She is unique, an incredibly precious witness to the world who is also tough, brilliant, forthright, honest, and will no doubt in future ages be saluted as a humanist prophet.”
She recently won the prestigious Stanford’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her travel writing. She self-deprecatingly refuses to discuss it, genuinely uncomfortable with such accolades.
Dervla Murphy has been a travelling trailblazer and broke the mould regarding the meaning of Irish womanhood. She has been a role model to generations of world travellers, but especially for Irish women.