The life of Dervla Murphy both inspires us and leaves us awestruck. She was a multitude of people in one. She was a travel writer, an explorer, an environmentalist and a political activist. Born in November 1931, in the historic Irish town of Lismore in County Waterford. She was the only child of her parents. Her father was the County librarian and perhaps she got her love of books and reading from him. Her mother caught the debilitating disease of rheumatoid arthritis shortly after Dervla’s birth and it worsened overtime. She later attributed her fearless nature to her mother, who never complained about her disease. In fact, it was her mother who sowed the seeds of travelling, by gifting her a bicycle and an atlas on her tenth birthday. And thus began her love of exploration, as she cycled around Lismore and the atlas introduced her to far off places, which she one day hoped to visit. She was unable to complete her studies as she had to leave the boarding school at the age of 14, because during the post war days, caregivers were not readily available for her mother and also the family finances were meagre. From then on, she took care of the home hearth and became the primary caregiver of her mother. Thereafter, for about 16 years she took care of her mother, whose health continuously deteriorated. Still, during these difficult times she took short solo trips at the behest of her mother. First her father passed away from complications of flu and eighteen months later her mother died. A year following her mother’s death she began her long-distance travels which continued for almost six decades, until her death in May 2022 at the age of ninety.
What makes Dervla Murphy a unique traveller was that she always packed light, had a frugal budget and travelled on bicycle or foot and occasionally on a mule too. She is often described as the ‘first lady of Irish cycling’, due to her 4400-mile journey from Dunkirk to Delhi on bicycle via Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Her first and most read book “Full Tilt” is based on this 6-month long bicycle trip. In the decades that followed she travelled to about 30 countries across different continents. She chronicled these travels in 26 books.
It was in Coorg, India that she felt most at home after Lismore and one day wished to revisit it, as she hoped that it was one place that might have changed little after her first trip there in 1973. ‘On a Shoestring to Coorg’, is her book about her Southern India travels.
Her travel writings introduce the reader not only to the landscape of the place, but with it provide a distinctive insight into the lives and cultures of the people across continents. Since she ate and lived with the locals, immersing herself into the lives of those she portrayed in her writings, it made her books an authentic and interesting read. In addition to this, she made observations about how modern living and interventions had spoiled traditional societies. She had a strong affinity for local people everywhere she travelled, especially the Afghan people. The love for Afghanistan disheartened her to witness the events that unfolded in the country, in the decades following her travels and the recent refugee crisis that erupted after US forces left the country shook her. In many of her later interviews she observed, “The more I see of life in these ‘underdeveloped countries’ and of the methods adopted to ‘improve’ them, the more depressed I become. It seems criminal that the backwardness of a country like Afghanistan should be used as an excuse for America and Russia to have tug-of-war for possession.”
Unlike the traveller of the internet age who is too eager to reach the places, prefers to stay connected with family and friends; and posts compulsively on social media, Dervla Murphy enjoyed her solitude during her travels. She had absolute disdain for the motor cars- the one invention she hated, which have percolated into every corner of the world and thus have not only damaged pristine places, but ‘have done incalculable damage by unbalancing the relationship between man and nature’. The environmentalist in her was saddened at the havoc climate change has brought.
She was suspicious of capitalism and was anti-consumerism. She reflects, “The hardships and poverty of my youth had been a good apprenticeship for this form of travel… And soon I was discovering for myself that our real material needs are very few and that the extras now presented as ‘needs’ not only endanger true contentment but diminish our human dignity.”
‘The Ukimwi Road’ (ukimwi is Swahili word for AIDS), is the account of her journey through Africa. Here she witnessed the AIDS reaching epidemic proportions in the region and the threat it posed to the way of life in Africa; and also how the local people had little sense of this threat.
In her later years, she wrote about political issues too. She was particularly affected by the Palestine conflict. In, ‘A Month by the Sea- Encounters in Gaza’ and ‘Between River and Sea-Encounters in Israel and Palestine’, she wrote about the region. Her sentiments about the conflict are evident from her words, she said, ‘In Israel and Palestine, I felt it was my duty as a writer not to be neutral’. Elsewhere she said, “fences don’t foster friendships”. She was against the two nation theory that is being pushed in the region and the injustices the Palestinians have been facing for so long.
Dervla Murphy, was a true travel legend, who led an uncompromising and inspiring life. In her more than half-a-century of globetrotting, nothing deterred her from travelling. Many times, she contracted dangerous diseases, broke ribs numerous times and even broke her hip once. All this and much more of personal ordeal did not take her humor and zest for life away.
Livneet Shergill has a Ph.D. in Economics. She works as an Independent Researcher and Freelance Writer.