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Life at Full Tilt: The Selected Writings of Dervla Murphy

Murphy once noted that as a child ‘it was the removal from my natural habitat that I minded most. Amidst the fields and woods and rivers and hills around Lismore I could enjoy myself as nowhere else’

Life at Full Tilt: The Selected Writings of Dervla Murphy
Author: ed. Ethel Crowley
ISBN-13: 978-1780602110
Publisher: Eland
Guideline Price: £25

At the end of Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, Dervla Murphy’s first published book from 1965, is a list of kit that she carried with her on that incredible solo journey undertaken in 1963. Along with the clothes she wore leaving her native Waterford, with her bicycle, Roz, was one change of clothes, one bar of soap, one toothbrush, one face-cloth, 100 aspirin, six tubes of sunburn cream, and among “Incidentals” listed were passport, pens, notebooks, four maps, and a “1.25 pistol with four rounds of ammunition”.

From the late-nineteenth century the appeal of cycling extended beyond the upper classes to a more accessible form of leisure and travel. During and after the Revolutionary period in Ireland, the bicycle was used as a tool both of urban and rural policing, as well as playing a key part of communications and arms smuggling for Volunteer forces. For women in Ireland, the bicycle also offered freedom away from the daily chores and confinement of domestic life. It has also become synonymous with the travel writing and life of Dervla Murphy.

Born in 1931 into an Ireland that was inherently conservative as regards the social freedoms of women, Murphy moved outside such parameters of Church and State and forged her own path that took her around the world by bicycle, on foot, or by mule. A lifetime of travel that bore twenty-four books, including one volume of memoir, Murphy’s publications document a gamut of writing that covers geopolitics, climate issues, migration, colonialism, nuclear risk and capitalism, all captured through a unique and empathetic ethnographic lens.

Murphy was a disciplined writer as well as traveller. Nightly accounts were written under the light of candle or moon, no matter the ache of body or mind and often when the only company, be they insect, rodent or would-be thief, would dare intrude on her solitude after a day’s journeying.

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Here, Ethel Crowley has gathered a selected “Rough Guide” to the travel writings of Dervla Murphy. A piece is taken from each of the books, from the 1960s through to Murphy’s final writings, an unfinished trilogy of books that focused on Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The latter remained unfinished though as Murphy, at age 85, suffered a fall and injury in Jordan in 2016. In between, Murphy travelled where many war-time journalists wouldn’t dare and to places that after the glare of the world’s media had left, global society had chosen to forget. Travels through Northern Ireland in the 1970s, post-genocide Rwanda, Apartheid South Africa, the Balkans and treks from Cameroon to Cuba, saw Murphy record an indispensable body of writing that reflects the changing modern global political landscape for over half a century.

Like any wanderer and traveller, there is the process of coming home and returning to one’s roots to contend with. Murphy once noted that as a child “it was the removal from my natural habitat that I minded most. Amidst the fields and woods and rivers and hills around Lismore I could enjoy myself as nowhere else”. In later years and decades and after often gruelling extended months of travel, Murphy’s home of the Old Market, nestled at the end of lane off Lismore’s main street would become a site of retreat, to write and ferment the sites, people, events and places she had encountered on the road.

Crowley includes a generous introduction to the book, recounting many conversations and visits to Murphy at her Lismore home, reminding the reader of the restless spirit and boundless curiosity towards the human experience with which Murphy brought to each journey, as well as the genuine care and empathy to each ordinary soul she met along her travels. “She bore witness”, Crowley writes, “[Murphy] could say ‘I was there. I saw it with my own eyes’”. Murphy was equally at ease and fascinated by conversations had with shopkeepers in Havana as much as she was when conversing with the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Murphy described such a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1966: “I found myself talking to a simple, pleasant young man, who has a gracious manner and lively humour of the average Tibetan but who failed to impress me by any unusual qualities”.

Though Crowley’s introduction may be repetitious in parts in reiterating Murphy’s undoubted merits, she also highlights the important question of the legacy of the writing. “Travel writing”, Crowley notes, “is an amorphous genre that can slip between the cracks and does not always garner the respect or fame it deserves. Dervla is better known for being a tough traveller than a great writer”. The former is certainly true and this book should put paid to the latter. Murphy is a centrally important figure in modern Irish writing and should be fully acknowledged as every bit the writer as much as the traveller.

Irish writing has been filled with wandering souls, bringing tales and sharing stories, meeting cultures and crossing borders. Crowley’s edition of selected writings by Dervla Murphy will bring the curiosity, humanity, energy, wit and fearlessness of Murphy to a new generation of readers, to young women and young men, whose wanderlust may urge them to pack their own pack and bicycle, to see the world through an unfiltered gaze.