Dervla Murphy was fearless and indomitable, a truly unique person. The travel writer died in recent days, aged 90. She cannot be the only child who received a bicycle and an atlas on her 10th birthday, but I bet she was the only one who carried out the audacious ambition she forged that day: to cycle one day to India.
That journey was the subject of her first book, Full Tilt, Ireland to India with a Bicycle, in 1965.
I was lucky enough to interview Dervla Murphy twice. Once was in 2010, and the second in 2014. Both times, I went to her home in Lismore, Co Waterford; a rambling set of disconnected buildings, each containing a single room, where the rain fell on you every time you went from kitchen to study or bathroom to bedroom.
I had never interviewed anyone who lived in such an unusual way. Like all the journalists who went to interview her, I was disarmed by being offered a can of beer in the early afternoon – she already frequently held one aloft in her hand in a determined, gallant gesture that reminded me of the Statue of Liberty.
I had read many of her books, and been astounded by her consistent bravery. She travelled like nobody I knew; by mule, and bicycle, and walking, with few plans, and staying where she could, and eating what she found.
As soon as she deemed her daughter Rachel old enough to travel – aged five – Murphy took her along: to India, and Pakistan, and Peru. Rachel was among the least cosseted and most adventurous of Irish children, going by the extraordinary accounts of their travels together.
Both times, we talked in Murphy’s study, with its backdrop of dark wooden bookshelves, where four dogs vied for her attention. She agreed to being photographed for the interview only when I promised at least some of her dogs would also feature. At some point, I was summoned through the rain to the building that was a kitchen, where she ladled stew into a bowl for me, but ate nothing herself. She told me she ate both breakfast and dinner at 5am, as it saved time.
I was utterly agog both at the way she lived in the complex of disconnected rooms, the consumption of two meals at a time when most people were still asleep, and the monkish frugality of her lifestyle. I tried to imagine her in some mythologised London club, hanging out with other travel writers, and just could not.
She was a unit of one in the same way a single oak tree commands all others around it.
The world was where she went, but Lismore was where she lived, and where she always came home to.
Like all people who are brave, she never saw herself as such. She couldn’t be brave, she told me, because she simply wasn’t afraid of anything. But she was in fact tremendously brave, and if her life had taken a different direction, she could have been a magnificent foreign correspondent. As it was, her books – with their unadorned, direct style of narration – were astonishing testimonies of travels to places most people will never go.
She told me she had no idea how many books she had sold, and I believed her, because she was authentic to her core, and one of the least materialistic people I have met. When the books were written, she was interested only in the next journey, the next project, writing the next book.
Money really didn’t seem to interest her, other than to fund the next adventure. It was experience she craved, and discovering more about people who lived in other countries, and cultures. Curiosity drove her.
As the afternoon wore on, she replenished her silver torches of beer, and expressed disappointment that I was not joining her. I had to drive on somewhere else both times. Afterwards, I bitterly regretted that I hadn’t abandoned my schedule, checked in to the local hotel for the night, and spent the rest of the day drinking with Dervla Murphy and hearing more of her stories.
But I have the books she signed for me, and better than that, the inspiration she lit long ago in me and so many other women to go off travelling alone; to have adventures, to be curious, and to try our best to be as fearless and singular as she was.