Dervla Murphy Born: November 28th, 1931 Died: May 22nd, 2022
Dervla Murphy, Ireland's most intrepid and fearless travel writer has died aged 90.
The west-Waterford based author of over 25 books travelled all over the world from Peru to Pakistan, from Africa, India and Siberia to Cuba, Romania, Laos and Israel.
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 legend 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 1979, she 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.
Dervla Murphy grew up in Lismore, Co. Waterford, the only child of Dubliners, Fergus and Kathleen Murphy. Her father Fergus Murphy was the county librarian and her mother, Kathleen encouraged her to read and discuss books. As a child she enjoyed writing, and gave her parents short stories or essays as Christmas and birthday presents.
Her education, at the Ursuline Convent, Waterford, was cut short at the age of 14 when she had to look after mother who suffered from a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis.
Murphy regularly brought a loaded pistol on her travels, for personal safety. At one point in Bulgaria she was attacked by wolves and had to shoot them
Murphy took her first cycling holiday abroad when she was 20. She travelled through Wales and the south of England, visiting Stratford, Oxford and London, and wrote a series of articles about her travels for Hibernia. The following year she embarked on a five-week continental tour.
In her 20s she attempted to write novels, but soon found that fiction was not her forte. She then concentrated on travel writing, and after India wrote about Tibet and Ethiopia.
In her 30s she had a daughter, Rachel with Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of The Irish Times who was married at the time. She was resolute about bringing up her daughter alone. “By this time I was established as a writer and had my own home with no mortgage,” she said. Solitary by nature and fiercely independent, she often said that she enjoyed other people’s company but was equally happy to spend long periods of time alone.
When her daughter was young, Murphy stopped travelling for a while and earned money through book reviewing. Freya Stark, Colin Thubron, and Redmond O’Hanlon were among the travel writers she admired but her favourite was Mungo Park who she said wrote the greatest travel book that had ever been written.
When Rachel was nearly five, Murphy considered her old enough to accompany her to Coorg in southern India. They travelled together throughout her childhood to Baltistan (Where the Indus is Young: A Winter in Baltistan), Peru (Eight Feet in the Andes) Madagascar (Muddling Through Madagascar) and Cameroon (Cameroon with Egbert).
Over the years her interest in geopolitical developments as they affected remote parts of the earth found expression in her work. She identified the turning point as her 1981 book on nuclear power, Race to the Finish? which she followed up with A Place Apart, and Tales from Two Cities based on her time spent in Bradford and Birmingham speaking to members of the Asian, Afro-Caribbean and White communities there.
Murphy was in Romania within weeks of Ceausescu’s fall from power (Transylvania and Beyond), Rwanda less than two years after the genocide (Visiting Rwanda) and South Africa immediately post-apartheid (South from the Limpopo), having previously been refused entry. In 1992, she cycled from Kenya to Zimbabwe where she witnessed the impact of AIDS (The Ukimwi Road).
Some of her readers wrote to her expressing disapproval of the “political stuff”, but others welcomed her on-the-ground independent perspective on the impact of political upheavals on local populations.
Murphy regularly brought a loaded pistol on her travels, for personal safety. At one point in Bulgaria she was attacked by wolves and had to shoot them. She advised intending travellers to use guidebooks to identify the areas most frequented by foreigners and then to go in the opposite direction. She also recommended investing in the best available maps and, above all, a compass.
She enjoyed the local beer wherever she travelled, whether it was home-fermented talla in Ethiopia or beerlao in Laos. She also had her share of misfortune – tick bite fever in South Africa, a fractured coccyx and a broken foot in Romania, a triple tooth abscess in the Cameroon, gout in Madagascar, an attack of amoebic dysentery in Pakistan and a dog bite in Belfast.
She continued travelling into her early 80s. In Silverland: A Winter Journey across the Urals (2006) she recounted facing down "bureaucratic immigration officers from Belarus, sullen babushkas in railway ticket offices, vodka-drinking conscripts, a pair of mugging brothers and a bear".
The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba was published in 2008, following visits to Cuba in 2005 with her daughter, Rachel and her three grandchildren and two return solo trips in 2006 and 2007. A supporter of the revolution, she left Cuba “somewhat less starry-eyed, though still a staunch supporter of Castroism as it has been evolving since 1990”.
In 2011, Murphy spent a month in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where she met liberals and Islamists, Hamas and Fatah supporters. In a review of her book, A Month by The Sea: Encounters in Gaza, writer, Colm Toibin describes it as “a wake-up call to the world”. Murphy went on to write Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine but she destroyed the material for a third book based on visits to the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan for fear that it might endanger their lives.
After her travels, Murphy always returned to her home town, Lismore, where she walked her dogs and swam in the Blackwater River. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else than my own little bit of west Waterford,” she said.
Although her physical travels stopped in the last years of her life, she continued to read voraciously – both books and online newspapers. She listened to BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service and watched Al Jazeera.
“Dervla lived her adventurous life at the edge – of social class and gender norms, of course, but often even at the edge of actual physical survival. The uncompromisingly honest travel writing that resulted from that life belongs at the heart of the Irish literary canon, to encourage younger people to go out and experience the real world rather than merely the virtual one,”said her friend Ethel Crowley.
Dervla Murphy is survived by her daughter Rachel and grand-daughters Rose, Clodagh and Zea.