The light of Lismore
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: DERVLA MURPHY:At 10 years old, Dervla Muphy planned her first major odyssey: a cycling trip to India. Now 78, the seasoned travel writer still drinks beer from a tin, has been known to run naked around her garden, and hasn’t given up travelling – even when she’s at home in Waterford, writes ROSITA BOLAND
THE FIRST THING travel writer Dervla Murphy does when I call about arranging a time for an interview at her home in Lismore, Co Waterford, is to offer me a bed for the night. Interviewees do not, as a matter of course, offer journalists accommodation. But when you have traversed the world, as Murphy has, receiving indiscriminate hospitality from strangers for almost half a century, it seems entirely appropriate that her instinct is to offer likewise for someone passing by in transit.
Lismore, where Murphy (78) has been based all her life, is a verdant, beautiful village, dominated by the immense Lismore Castle which overhangs the Blackwater River like a stately, window-studded crag.
Somehow it’s a surprise to discover that Murphy, who makes it clear in her many books that she treasures solitude and unpopulated areas, lives right in the centre of the village. Her property, located down a discreet laneway off the main street, is on the site of Lismore’s old market. It is not a house, but a collection of disparate and unconnected converted stone buildings – cowhouse, piggery, forge – which function variously as study, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and guest accommodation. The unusual arrangements of the place mean that to go from one room to another, including the bathroom, you must go outside, no matter what the weather. This would test the comfort levels of most people, let alone someone approaching 80, but Murphy says it doesn’t bother her at all, and that she loves living there.
“It doesn’t feel as if it’s in the middle of a town,” she explains. “The place is not overlooked, so in the hot summer weather – whenever we get it – I can run around in the nude without being observed.”
For her 10th birthday, Dervla Murphy received gifts of a second-hand bicycle and an atlas. In her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, she writes matter-of-factly that “a few days later I decided to cycle to India . . . However, I was a cunning child, so I kept my ambitions to myself”.
Did she consider herself to be an unusual child? “Yes, because I always liked being alone,” she says decisively.
We are talking in the study, an oak-panelled room dominated both by the startling thickness of its walls – “I’m toldit’s the only surviving 17th-century dwelling in Lismore” – and the huge, dark, high bookshelves that occupy one entire wall. Despite the presence of the many artefacts brought back from Murphy’s travels – masks, carvings, wall-hangings – there is a noticeable modesty about the room. There is, for example, just one armchair. The only other seating is the hard chair at her writing desk, and a blanket-covered short bench used in rotation by her four beloved elderly terriers, Spit, Guinness, Worzel and Pepper. And although this room contains hundreds of travel-related books, none of them are Murphy’s. Copies of her own travel books, more than 20 of them to date, are shelved, away from public view, in the little two-storey wooden structure she built as guest accommodation.
Aged 14, Murphy, an only child, had to leave the Ursuline Convent in Waterford to help care for her mother, who had early on contracted a severely debilitating type of rheumatoid arthritis. There was very little money, and Murphy became the main carer. She remained so until her mother’s death 16 years later.
“I was extremely resentful, especially through my twenties. Well, not at all resentful of her, but resentful of fate,” she says.
Fate and familial love kept her tethered to Lismore until she was 31, but when Murphy finally did get the opportunity to embark on the kind of independent travelling she had wanted to do since she was a child, she never stopped.
“If there are mountains, I want to go there,” she states, explaining why she went exploring in most of the countries she’s visited.
THE FIRST JOURNEY,in 1963, traced the route her childhood imagination had mapped out for her, from Ireland to India by bike, via Afghanistan. The last journey was to Cuba, which she wrote about in The Island That Dared(2008). In between, there have been some 20 other books, about journeys that have taken her all over the world, from Peru to Pakistan, from Africa, India and Siberia to Cuba, Romania and Laos.
In all her journeys, she has biked, walked or simply improvised her way through countries when bikes broke down or were stolen, or her own limbs proved temporarily untrustworthy. Only weeks into her first journey in 1963, she shot a wolf that threatened attack in rural Yugoslavia by using a gun she had acquired and learnt to use in Ireland, with the support of helpful, if astounded, Lismore gardaí. Nothing thereafter, including increasing age, ever appears to have daunted her.
“I’m not brave or courageous,” she insists, laughing, although she does accept my description of her as “fearless”. “That’s a good word. If you don’t feel fear, you don’t have to be brave. You’re not brave when you’re never afraid. I’ve never been afraid travelling.” Then she adds as an afterthought: “Well, unless something immediate happens, like when you think you’re going to be murdered.”
Twenty years ago, she woke up unexpectedly one night “with this absolutely appallingpain in my chest”. It was to be diagnosed the following day as pericarditis, a virus of the lining of the heart.
“For the next few hours, I really did think I was dying,” she relates, matter-of-factly. “That night I really thought I’d had it. And during it, I discovered I wasn’t afraid of dying, which is a very useful thing to discover in middle age.”
What she does fear is cognitive illness. “I think I’d be afraid of getting Alzheimer’s or any of those. I mean, obviously, you’re losing your marbles gradually at 78. My memory for names, for instance, has virtually disappeared. But I would be quite scared of any Alzheimer’s sort of condition.”
As we talk, Murphy smokes Café Crème cigars and drinks Bavaria beer straight from its blue tin, periodically disappearing to the kitchen building across the yard to fetch reinforcements. (She is terribly disappointed when I can’t join her for a drink, as I’m driving.) Her distinctive, drawling voice is deep, and she has an unusual tendency to randomly emphasise stray words in sentences, the way people sometimes do when learning a new language. It has the effect of making you listen closely to everything she says.
Murphy now walks with a pronounced stoop, and her wiry hair has greyed, but she clearly remains physically tough and does not appear to need or want the everyday comforts most people take for granted.
Although it’s a sharp-edged day in mid- February, during a tour of the property I can observe no operating source of heating anywhere, other than the wood-burning stove in the study. I initially mistake her bedroom, located in the old cowhouse building, for a storeroom, due to its almost monastic simplicity, chilly temperature, and the fact that most of the room is occupied by dozens of her travel archive boxes, now destined for Trinity College Dublin. Is Trinity buying them? She looks genuinely amazed at the question – “Who’d want to buy my papers?” – and then relates how she had bagged up most of her memorabilia (a unique archive of almost 50 years) in black sacks, ready to take to the dump, when a horrified friend persuaded her not to.
There is no television (“God, no!”), she uses an electric typewriter, she does not own a car and has never learned to drive. When I ask what her luxuries are, apart from the books that line every wall in the property, she holds the beer can aloft with a grin. Is that brand of beer her favourite?
“Ah no, I’m indiscriminate. Well, this is the cheapest one, obviously,” she says.
The only period in Murphy’s life after her mother died when she did not travel abroad was the five years following her daughter Rachel’s birth in 1968. The circumstances of Rachel’s birth were as unconventional as the rest of Murphy’s life: the girl’s father was Terence de Vere White, then the well-known literary editor of this newspaper, who was married at the time. Murphy herself has never married.
It was not public knowledge for many years that de Vere White was Rachel’s father, but this being Ireland, there were rumours. Was it difficult raising Rachel by herself in a small village in rural Ireland during the late 1960s? “Not at all,” she insists resolutely, but no matter what she says, it cannot have been easy, and once the identity of the father became known, quite possibly harder still.
Between the ages of five and 18, Rachel accompanied her mother on five extended journeys. She then featured in – you could say, was the star of – Murphy’s subsequent books, most notably Where the Indus is Young: A Winter in Baltistan, where she is portrayed as an admirably resilient eight-year-old in rural Pakistan, whose dinner often consists solely of dried apricots. The other journeys were to southern India, Peru, Madagascar and Cameroon. Did Murphy ever think of collaborating with Rachel on a book? She looks surprised.
“No, not really,” she says. “No, I never thought of it. No, I can’t imagine collaborating with anyone on a book really.”
An organic farmer, Rachel now lives in Italy with her husband, Andrew, and their three daughters, Rose (14), Clodagh (12) and Zea (10).
Most of Murphy’s books are written in a straightforward diary format, in functional prose carried forward by the utterly compelling power of the narrative. Elsewhere in the world of travel publishing, methods and styles of framing and presenting travel writing have changed hugely, but Murphy has never wavered from her unapologetically old- fashioned style. She doesn’t have a favourite book of her own, and nor does she have even the vaguest idea how many copies they have sold over time, which is highly unusual for a writer whose income depends on sales.
“I haven’t the faintest idea!” she says, laughing. “I try to forget about my books as soon as I’ve finished writing them, because I’m always disappointed in them, so I just concentrate on the next one.”
She finds writing difficult and all- consuming. When she returns after a journey, the three gates that lead to her home, open today for me, remain firmly closed to all visitors.
“I’m not like people who can be more relaxed about their writing, and have a social life occasionally and then go back to writing,” she says. “I just don’t operate like that, so I have to isolate myself. I think it’s partly that when I’m writing about travel, it’s a question of mentally staying in the country, even though you’ve come home bodily. It makes it easier to write about a place that way.”
In latter years, her books have focused less on the narrative of travel and more on issue-related themes such as pollution, politics and anti-globalisation. Her next journey, which she is in the process of planning but can’t yet talk about publicly (due to the problems of gaining access to the area), will focus on politics and religious beliefs.
“My travels will obviously be limited by old age,” she says. “Well, I’m old now. I think future journeys will be less active travelling, and more looking at problem areas.”
SHE TALKS ABOUTthe changes she has seen over time in the way people travel.
“I think the good thing is that so many more young people can afford to travel now,” she says. “They can really get out there and see how other people live. I suppose the disadvantage is that the development of mass tourism has really spoiled so many places. And it worries me to notice the tendency now for young travellers to be all the time in communication with family and friends and home. They don’t seem really to be fully out in the new world that they’ve travelled to. They’re too dependent, I think, on their links with home, and sometimes even in whatever business they’re involved in at home. They’re not fully where they are.”
She receives a constant stream of letters from readers and would-be travel writers.
“What makes me sad is that it’s much harder for good young writers to get a start now,” she says. “The publishing world has become much less encouraging for young writers. Quite often, I get typescripts from young people who have really written well about their travels but who can’t get their books published. They’re usually quiet sort of books, nothing sensational about the journey, but they’re well-written. That bothers me, that the quality of writing seems to matter less than the sort of sensationalist approach of, I don’t know, who’s the fellow who went round Ireland with the fridge ? That kind of thing.”
Murphy is dressed entirely in navy: navy corduroy trousers, navy jumper, navy shoes. As daylight fades and the interview ends, she gives the illusion of slowly vanishing into the dense shadows of the room, even when a lamp is finally turned on. It reminds me of something, but I can’t think what. I only figure it out later, when I’ve left and am driving into the night: the reductive colours have the unexpected effect of camouflage. They’re the understated covering of the observer who deliberately chooses to merge into the background, but whom you stop paying attention to at your peril.
Lismore, Co Waterford, on
November 28th 1931.
Until the age of 14, at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford.
One daughter, Rachel.
A traveller and travel writer since 1963, she is the author of more than 20 books. Her most famous book was her first, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Until recently, all her books were published by John Murray.
She has now joined Eland Books, which has marked her arrival by reissuing new editions of Full Tilt; her autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels; and her most recent book, The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba.