Dervla Murphy, the intrepid Irish travel writer who has died aged 90, said that she was never one for looking ahead. "I'm very much one for living in the present, and I'm content when I'm travelling or at home working on the next book or walking or cycling around west Waterford," said Murphy in an Irish Times interview when she was 82.
The author of over 25 books, Murphy travelled all over the world – to Peru, Pakistan, Africa, India, Siberia, Cuba, Romania, Laos, Israel and Palestine.
A keen cyclist, her first book was Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965). Her account of the six-month journey through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and over the Himalayas into Pakistan and India established her as an exceptional new voice.
A master of straight reportage, she became a hero among travel writers and enthralled readers with what travel writer, Colin Thubron described as her “unpretentious, shiningly honest and accessible” books marked by their “earthy humour and charm”.
Travelling by bicycle, on foot, on pack pony or by public transport – she never learned to drive – Murphy listened, observed and recorded conversations she had with locals in over 30 countries she visited.
In a statement following her death, Murphy’s publishers, Eland Publishing in London said that “the world of travel writing has lost its secular saint, who believed in truth above all.”
“She was a great traveller, but more importantly she was a brilliant listener. Though supremely well read, she really believed in understanding a place through the words of its inhabitants. She was interested in everyone, and boundaries of class and race seemed invisible to her,” said Rose Baring from Eland.
Although solitary by nature, Murphy was generous with her time, often encouraging new generations of travellers over a beer at her home in Lismore. Her courage to set off across the globe on her bike has inspired female travellers the world over.
“Today’s travel writers Colin Thubron and Sara Wheeler have often acknowledged her legacy of absolute veracity, humility and fearlessness,” added Rose Baring.
In 1979, Murphy won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs memorial prize for A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s (1978), written after time spent with members of the Protestant and Catholic communities there.
In 2019, the Royal Geographical Society celebrated her work with the Ness Award for the “popularisation of geography through travel literature”. In 2021, she won the prestigious Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing.
Born in 1931, Murphy grew up in Lismore, Co Waterford, the only child of Dubliners, Fergus and Kathleen Murphy. After her travels, she always returned there. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else than my own little bit of west Waterford,” she said.
“She practised the profound political anti-capitalism and anti-materialism that informed her work, living in an unheated house, baking her own bread and travelling to visit her publishers in London by bus and ferry right into her 80s,” said Baring.
President Michael D. Higgins said “people throughout Ireland, in her community of Lismore and far beyond to the many places in which she travelled, and they were many, will have been saddened” by the news of Murphy’s death.
“While known as Ireland’s most famous travel writer, such a description barely captures the fullness and deep understanding captured in her work,” the President said. “ Her contribution to writing, and to travel writing in particular, had a unique commitment to the value of human experience in all its diversity.
“She retained a strong interest in those who were suffering throughout the world even up to recent weeks and brought an insightful perspective to matters of politics, environmentalism and the crucial importance of peace. I would like to send my deepest condolence to her daughter Rachel, with whom she shared so many of her adventures, her grandchildren, and to all her family and friends.”