A new film about Dervla Murphy paints a fascinating picture of the 85-year-old travel writer, says Ellie O’Byrne
I REMEMBER very well that I was cycling up a hill and I looked down at my legs and thought, ‘If I kept doing this I’d reach India’.”
The story of how best-selling Irish author and adventurer Dervla Murphy decided, at the age of 30 and in the midst of the harshest winter of the 20th century, to cycle from her home in Lismore, Co Waterford to India was recounted in her first book, 1965’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.
Now, over 20 titles later and 85 years old, she’s the subject of a feature documentary, Who is Dervla Murphy?
Martina McGlynn and Garret Daly are the husband and wife team behind the film which provides an intimate insight into the life, work and closest relationships of one of Ireland’s most prolific and publicity-shy travel writers.
In interviews with Murphy, with her daughter Rachel Murphy and with fellow travel writers Michael Palin and Manchán Magan, as well as publisher John Murray, an affectionate, humorous and honest portrait emerges of Murphy: energetic, a touch egocentric and unapologetically non-conformist.
“People like that only come around every so often and I look back now and think, ‘My God, we got to spend this incredibly rare quality time with her’,” Daly, who directed the documentary, says.
Producer and researcher McGlynn hit upon the idea to make the film after she accompanied Daly and Manchán Magan to Dervla’s house for an interview for RTÉ radio.
“While Manchán was interviewing her I was rambling around her house and yard so I got to see more of it than Garret, who was working. I was fascinated with the house and everything in it. She lives so frugally; she has very few needs apart from her books and her writing and her time alone,” McGlynn says. “On the journey back in the car I was asking why we don’t hear more about her. There was no record of her life on film, nothing there and that seemed extraordinary. We spoke about leaving an archive.”
McGlynn and Daly met at a job interview for Lyric FM and have worked together ever since, marrying in 2006. Winning the intensely private Murphy’s trust, they both agree, was a large part of the process of filming what they describe as a no-budget “passion project”.
“She got to know us and we visited a couple of times,” Daly says. “She would have friends come around and we were there for dinners and long walks and it was killing because all you wanted to do was start filming, especially when you were in her company. In terms of the process, everyone else got interviewed before Dervla. I think she kind of controlled it in her own way. There’s a lot you end up doing on her terms.”
The result is a documentary rooted in honesty as Rachel Murphy describes her mother’s conscious decision to conceive her with Terence De Vere White, the married editor of the Irish Times, and raise her alone as “an outrageous thing to do,” and reveals her struggle to forgive her for some of the decisions she made.
She also describes herself growing impatient with her mother’s increasing frailty, a revelation that poignantly mirrors Dervla’s experience of caring for her own mother towards the end of her life.
Did McGlynn, who conducted the interviews, ever feel that they had overstepped the mark and entered terrain too private to include in the film? “Rachel was uncomfortable in those moments but that information just came out. I definitely had sleepless nights over it though. I lay awake wondering about what we should leave in. I believe that they were both at a point in their lives where they were forced to confront something through those interviews.”
“We had a very honest conversation with Rachel after we stopped shooting and I asked her if there was anything she wanted to revisit or was she happy with everything she said to be included and she said ‘No, I’m happy with it all – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise,’ and in that way she reminded me very much of her mother,” Daly says. “They were both so open and revealed so much of themselves and I like to think we were very respectful of that and their relationship.”
Murphy was, true to form, unavailable for comment on the documentary as she is currently in refugee camps in Jordan for her latest project, the third in a trilogy about the Palestinian situation; she makes no apology for the increasingly politicised stance of her books in recent years and is as keen to work as ever. The energy she exudes, well into her 80s, is palpable in the film as Michael Palin laughingly describes being invited to join her on her daily skinny dip in the Blackwater near her home.
“I lost a tripod filming the sequences down by the Blackwater,” Daly says. He shot the documentary on a Canon XL. “I pushed every limit I had in terms of running with my camera on my shoulder. There’s no ‘Stand over here, Dervla, and do this.’ As Michael Palin said, she just doesn’t do that kind of thing. She just went and kept going. We couldn’t keep up with her and I didn’t have time to pack up my tripod and by the time we got back it was gone.”
The documentary is an extended edition of the shorter release which toured festivals to critical acclaim, and is being released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Murphy’s first journey to India. “We felt that Dervla deserved the big screen treatment,” McGlynn says. “We lengthened it, adding previously unseen footage and the interview with Michael Palin.”
McGlynn and Daly, who live in Co Offaly with their two sons, aged eight and five, are working on a new comedy project based on the true story of Noel Murray and Keith Byrne, two boys from Darndale who stowed away on an Air India jet to New York in the 1980s. But McGlynn would like to revisit Murphy’s work for future projects. “I’ve been trying – unsuccessfully so far – to buy the rights for Wheels within Wheels from her,” she says of Murphy’s 1979 memoir about life before her globetrotting began.
And what did the inimitable Ms Murphy make of the documentary? She’s never seen it. “She rang me very early one morning and told me she’d sent her spies to the premiere,” Daly says. “She basically said they gave it the all-clear and I said, ‘Can I ever sit you down to watch it?’ and she said, ‘Absolutely not.’ She has no interest in seeing it. She’s finished with it; she’s moved on.”
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