Dervla Murphy: Courageous travel writer who abhorred fuss and luxury

'People are in control of the world and they need to behave responsibly when exercising that control'
Dervla Murphy: Courageous travel writer who abhorred fuss and luxury

A few weeks before she died peacefully at home in Lismore, West Waterford, Dervla Murphy contacted her closest friends for the last time to say goodbye.

As her final journey approached, Dervla Murphy sent out messages to her dearest friends bidding them farewell and thanking them for their valued friendship throughout her long life.

Acutely aware that the end was close at hand, Ireland’s most celebrated travel writer and intrepid globetrotter said her own personal adieu to a small circle of friends, the Irish Examiner has learnt.

This heart-warming gesture to those who loved her typified Murphy’s unflinchingly honest, strong-minded, pragmatic personality. Over the past year she suffered several strokes and a few weeks before she died peacefully at home in Lismore, West Waterford, she contacted her closest friends for the last time to say goodbye.

The intrepid traveller and internationally acclaimed travel writer was intensely private, avoiding media interviews, only reluctantly agreeing to go on publisher tours to promote a new book.

Murphy’s communication skills on the road were legendary yet she disliked having to stand up and describe her fearless solo journeys in far-flung parts of the world on the lecture circuit.

In a world before social media, Dervla Murphy’s wish that her passing would be over and done with before the world knew she was gone might well have been granted.

But that was not to be. A tweet from her London publisher announcing her demise last Monday afternoon led to the glowing tributes shortly afterwards from President Michael D Higgins, who was among her biggest admirers.

Within hours a global outpouring of sadness, memories, tributes, and newspaper obituaries appeared on the internet. All week long they recalled her marathon journeys — enduring more often than not mind-boggling discomfort travelling by bike, pony, mule or shanks mare through the world’s wildest places — with friends and fans queuing to sign books of condolence.

Two days after she passed away, the deeply admired writer and champion of tour cycling was laid to rest in a private burial attended by her daughter Rachel who had accompanied Dervla on some of her perilous adventures, and two other mourners. The death notice was posted after her burial had already taken place at St Carthage’s Cemetery in Lismore.

My first meeting with Dervla Murphy in 2019, role model for generations of world travellers, and a pioneering force for Irish women who enjoy travelling solo, filled me with trepidation. I was nervous about meeting this most courageous of travellers, who rarely gave interviews and whose debut — a remarkable story of cycling 4,500 miles from Ireland to India ‘Full Tilt’ — was so inspirational. 

An old friend of hers introducing us in advance cautioned “you’ll find Dervla courteous and hospitable, but she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and on no account mention the words ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ to describe her".

The intrepid traveller and internationally acclaimed travel writer was intensely private, avoiding media interviews, only reluctantly agreeing to go on publisher tours to promote a new book.
The intrepid traveller and internationally acclaimed travel writer was intensely private, avoiding media interviews, only reluctantly agreeing to go on publisher tours to promote a new book.

At her home tucked away off Lismore's main street during several visits we chatted enjoying a few beers together, about her life and travels, the sorry state of the planet, global warming, poverty and her sadness over the ongoing Palestinian crisis (she had spent many months in Gaza researching her widely acclaimed 'A Month by the Sea'). In lieu of funeral flowers, donations were requested to the Gaza Community mental health programme.

After the pandemic struck, she was cocooning; “I despise that word”.

”Who could have imagined a thing like Covid-19 wreaking such havoc on our world? I fear it’s here for a long time”, she said, during a subsequent telephone interview.

As a staunch environmentalist Murphy, who would never fly if there were any other means of available transport, held trenchant opinions on the ill effects of mass tourism, especially the onward march of low-cost carriers. 

“Mass tourism created by global travel brands brought neither prosperity nor progress to less developed parts of the world,” she warned. "People are in control of the world and they need to behave responsibly when exercising that control."

Serving her home-made soup containing nine vegetables and freshly baked soda bread, rustled up from a simple galley kitchen at her home, a collection of unconnected buildings adjoining a cobbled courtyard that once formed Lismore’s marketplace, Dervla by now almost 88 years old, confirmed reports I had heard that only a few years earlier she had still slept on airport floors to wait for the morning flight back to Ireland.

“She avoided any kind of luxury, it made her uncomfortable to be in those places, especially star hotels or where the tourists were,” explains a friend of many years Hilary Bradt, founder of renowned Bradt travel guides who first met her “in a doss house in Peru” in the late 70s.

Dervla Murphy's desk where she wrote many of her books.
Dervla Murphy's desk where she wrote many of her books.

She recalls Dervla’s “extraordinary generosity” during their long friendship.

“We will all miss her greatly, she had a long and wonderful life, but it got much harder for her, not being able to type due to her arthritis or even lie down flat because of pain; she had to sleep in a chair but she was stoical and incredibly engaged with world events right up to the end.”

In one of her familiar typed postcards before she and her daughter, Rachel, took off to explore Madagascar – during which Dervla caught hepatitis and drank rum to try and cure herself – producing yet another gem of a book 'Muddling through in Madagascar' the author thanks her old friend Hilary who knew the island for her advice and tips.

Dervla had just finished correcting the proofs of her last book from the journey in the Peruvian Andes. She says of her manuscript “it is quite sensationally bad. I mean, worse than you could imagine or believe. Cannot think why Jock (Murray travel literature publishers) is publishing it; it will destroy my reputation, what there is of it.” 

Dervla Murphy in her study.
Dervla Murphy in her study.

The manuscript became ‘Eight Feet in the Andes’ which delighted the writer’s followers. “Dervla Murphy at her best”, was one reviewer's accolade.

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature, she received a string of awards throughout half a century, establishing herself as Ireland’s greatest travel writer. They included the Christopher Ewart-Biggs memorial prize for 'A Place Apart' — her insightful look at both sides of the divided community while travelling around Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles — and a lifetime achievement award from the British Guild of Travel Writers in 2019.

Last year, she received the prestigious Edward Stanford Award for outstanding contribution to travel writing. Judges described her as a giant of travel writing, fearless, optimistic, open-minded and humble who continued to inspire her readers of all ages to travel.

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