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In praise of Dervla Murphy, by Rosita Sweetman

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Not only is Dervla (true desire in Gaelic) a wonderful writer, she goes out and does stuff – physically, often politically, wildly dangerous stuff, cycling and living for months on end in Gaza, Africa, Afghanistan, India, the Urals’

Dervla Murphy in 1997: “our heroine tap tap taps out her notes from scraps of paper often scratched out in subzero/ sodden/ insect-riven conditions, transforming them into her astonishing books – observant, engaged, compassionate and unflinching”. Photograph: Jack Mcmanus

With the pornogrification of culture galloping forward at a fearsome rate (hashtag 50 shades of misogyny slickly disguised), Dervla Murphy stands as a beacon of sanity, a mighty quercus, head, torso and shoulders above the plasticised schlock. Not only is Dervla (“true desire” in Gaelic) a wonderful writer, she goes out and does stuff – physically, often politically, wildly dangerous stuff, cycling and living for months on end in Gaza, Africa, Afghanistan, India, the Urals, returning home to Lismore (one of her London editors said he had never been so cold in his life) where the gates are (literally) padlocked and our heroine tap tap taps out her notes from scraps of paper often scratched out in subzero/ sodden/ insect-riven conditions, transforming them into her astonishing books – observant, engaged, compassionate and unflinching. Writing as the most careful surgery. She was just 14 when her extraordinary mother, bedbound with rheumatoid arthritis since Dervla was six months old, encouraged her to cycle, alone, to Spain.

All hail.

“Natural beauty makes me happy. Music. Books. Reading. Family and friends. That’s enough. What I value most in others is honesty. What is life without it?”
Interview with Rosita Boland, Irish Times, June 20th, 2014

Other favourites: Eimear McBride, for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing; and Elizabeth Bowen, for The Death of the Heart.

Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. She has published three books, On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland.