The road less travelled – Tim Fanning on travel writer Kathleen Murphy

An Irishman’s Diary

In 1931, while attending the Paris Colonial Exhibition, Kathleen Murphy came across a plaster model of Angkor Wat, the Buddhist temple in modern-day Cambodia. The "colossal façade" and "mighty towers" of the model made such an impression on her that she decided, then and there, that she would visit French Indochina to see the real temple.

When she subsequently mentioned her plans to a French friend, he scoffed at the notion. “Impossible,” he told her. “You would have to go there on an elephant.” His ridicule served not only to fan her enthusiasm but also, unwittingly, to suggest the most appropriate mode of conveyance to gaze upon this splendour of the Khmer Empire.

Unfortunately, Murphy did not get to realise her ambition. Six years later, when she arrived in Asia, she abandoned her dream of seeing the Khmer temple, for the first time, from the "howdah of an elephant", and settled for completing the final stage of her journey by car.

But before doing so, she soaked up the exotic sights and sounds of downtown Saigon and noticed some “dejected-looking, slouching figures” enter what looked like a cinema. Taking a peek inside, she realised she had entered an opium den. Neither customers nor attendants took any notice of the middle-aged Irishwoman staring at them from the entrance, and so she remained “sufficiently long to witness the whole process” of opium addiction.


To a later generation of worldly Irish backpackers, the varied wonders of southeast Asia may seem not much more exotic than a week the Canaries. But in the mid-1930s, for a citizen of de Valera's Ireland, the path was a lot less well-worn. And that was how Murphy, both a serious traveller and a serious travel writer, preferred it.

Born in Tulla, Co Clare, in 1879, Murphy was educated at Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick before studying Modern Languages at University College, Dublin, entering the same autumn as Joyce, at a time when few women were admitted.

After graduation, her literary star seemed to be on the rise. She published a prize-winning volume of poetry and work appeared in different periodicals. However, in later years, when she began to travel, she tended to shun publicity.

Her career as a travel writer began in earnest in the late 1930s. For the next two decades she published essays about her experiences in the Capuchin Annual, a Dublin-based periodical popular with a Catholic middle-class readership in Ireland and the United States.

Her writing was rooted in her Catholicism, a prime example being "Memorable Masses in Many Lands", an account of her religious experiences in such contrasting cities as Aleppo, Port-au-Prince, Belgrade and Singapore. The idea of the pilgrimage – a constant in modern travel literature – was always at the centre of her work.

In the recently published Unaccompanied Traveler: The Writings of Kathleen M. Murphy (Syracuse University Press), Patrick Bixby notes that Murphy wrote for her readers "in a manner that, at times, reaffirmed their traditional social values and yet, at others, surely disquieted their sense of Catholic piety and feminine modesty".

Like all serious travellers, Murphy chased the purest experience, was contemptuous of mass-market tourism and yearned for an era when crossing the globe was more difficult.

Visiting the Benedictine monastery at Monserrat in Catalonia, she fled from the cars and coaches to the rocks above to seek the solitude of the heavens. In Brazil, she caught a nut company boat up the Amazon to Manaus. In the Peruvian Andes, she spent an uncomfortable night, wide awake and staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, after chewing coca leaves, eager, as she was, to test the stimulant's efficacy.

In East Berlin, she wandered through the "ghastly skeleton of a great city" and peered "at the flat expanse of rubble that now marks the site of the Chancellery, where the gaunt, crooked entrance to Hitler's bunker stands like the last jagged molar in a toothless jaw".

Murphy had the travel bug until the end of her life. In her 80th year, she visited Russia. While ashamed she could no longer travel solo, she conceded: "But when I landed on the quay at Ostend, one afternoon in June 1959, and asked to be directed to the bus for Moscow, it was for me a distinctively thrilling moment."

After her death in 1962, Thomas MacGreevy described Kathleen Murphy as probably “the most widely and most knowledgeably travelled Irish woman of her time”.

It was fitting that, in 1963, the same year that Murphy's final piece of travel writing, a description of a trip to the Balkans, appeared posthumously in the Capuchin Annual, her namesake, Dervla Murphy, climbed on her bike and set off for India, thus beginning another brilliant career in Irish travel writing.