Dispatch from Ireland #2: Writer Dervla Murphy – Prolific, Intrepid, Undaunted

October 9, 2015
Dervla Murphy inscribes a book for a fan – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

By Andrea Cleghorn

If you were to look up “Irish writer/bicyclist/adventurer” online, Dervla Murphy’s name and face would come up. She has written two dozen travel books since her first, “Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle in 1965.

In the 50 years since then, she has literally been all over the world, almost always alone, unarmed, riding her bike and working on her next non-fiction book.

“Hanging onto every word at Dervla brunch”
The audience was hanging onto every word at Dervla Murphy’s brunch – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

Brunch With Dervla was one of the featured events in a book lover’s week of heaven in Ireland this past summer, the West Cork Literary Festival in the town of Bantry.

Murphy packed the enormous library at Bantry House for brunch, selling out the 100 available tickets weeks ahead of time.

And on the morning of the much-awaited talk, at least a couple of dozen more people were cajoling, demanding and begging the organizers to be let in.

“I’m good at squeezing in and don’t mind sitting on a windowsill,” said one New Yorker, who has a house in Ireland.Murphy sat at the head table in the elegant Bantry House library, a Guinness in front of her, with her interviewer, fellow travel writer, Anthony Scarteen, seated next to her, asking her questions and passing the microphone around to members of the audience.

Andrew Scarteen and a conference organizer flank Dervla Muphy at t the speakers’ table
Andrew Scarteen and a conference organizer flank Dervla Muphy at t the speakers’ table – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

Scarteen and Murphy were framed in a window overlooking the magnificent stepped gardens behind them. Murphy was affable, relaxed and self-deprecating. She seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about—she rode a bike, she wrote a book, she rode again, which is what she has done for half a century.  Her latest book, “Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine,” was just released. Two years ago she wrote “A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza.”

Born in 1931 in the town of Lismore, County Waterford, Murphy was the only child of the county librarian and a chronically ill mother. She was educated at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford until she was pulled out of school to nurse her mother and help her father run the household.

So it wasn’t surprising that she turned to writing travel books. It took until she was almost 30, when her chronically ill mother died, before she could start to explore the world on her own terms. She was 32 when her first book came out, a chronicle of her travels “that was done by the time I got back home to Ireland from that first trip,” Murphy said, “through Europe and through to Iran, then Pakistan, and finally India. “My preparation was not reading; it was sending extra tubes and tires ahead, based on my experience [traveling by bicycle] when I had written articles about various summer holidays around Europe for “Hibernian” magazine.”

Guinness is one of Murphy's passions
Guinness is one of Murphy’s passions – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

She was on her own, age 32, on a bike to places she had never been. It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that by anyone’s definition this was an extremely adventurous undertaking.

“Was it hard?” Scarteen asked her.

“Not then. I took right off for Istanbul without needing a single form,” she said, laughing.

In 1968, she had a daughter named Rachel. She didn’t marry the father, but as a single mother  took a few years off from travel, writing book reviews for the Irish Times. When Rachel was five, though, Murphy took her along to India when she wrote “On a Shoestring to Coorg:an Experience of South India” (published in 1976). In 1979 she wrote her autobiography, “Wheels Within Wheels.”

The titles of her books are enticing: “Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule in Unknown Peru,” (1983); “The Ukimwi Road: From Kenya to Zimbabwe,” (1995); “One Foot in Laos,” (2001); “Through Siberia By Accident” (2005)…and the list goes on.

Interestingly enough, she doesn’t read travel books for pleasure. “I find them a bore,” she said.

She took her daughter and three granddaughters to Cuba in 2005. “The girls didn’t care for it, but I went back alone in 2006 and 2007.” Her book, “The Island That Dared,” came out of her Cuban travels.

“All my grandchildren love to travel, but they like to go off on their own. Parents were critical of me for letting my 11- and 13-year-old grandchildren take a train by themselves in another country,” she said.

Murphy was asked how she got along in so many places where the language was not her own. Someone else asked her if she knew or learned a lot of other languages. “I can’t learn any languages! And, yes, it was a huge disadvantage!” she said. She explained that she never had professional interpreters, just met people along the way who became friends and helped her out that way.

Someone asked her to name her three favorite places. “I would say Afghanistan, the Ethiopian Mountains and the Andes, but not absolute.”

Despite her travels to exotic—and dangerous—locations, Murphy refused to sensationalize her courageous pursuits, saying the biggest threat to her mobility was falling over her cats at home in Lismore, where she still lives.

She is undaunted. Old age has made it easier for her to travel safely, she said, as she doesn’t present as much of a threat. Traveling with her three granddaughters has meant that strangers look more kindly on her, too.

“Who says I am too old to travel?”

She took on Israel, Palestine and the West Bank at an advanced age. “What made me want to go there was a similar feeling that had prompted me to write about the Troubles (in Ireland). I wasn’t interested in going to just take a look at the problem. I wanted to go and stay long enough to try and understand it. That took 18 months, much longer than [my] average [visit],” she said.

It wasn’t until 2008 that I went to see for myself. I went four months to the West Bank and occupied territories, then four months [to Gaza]. Twenty percent of the population was refused entry to Gaza, even with a letter from the Irish Times.

“Forget U.N. resolutions,” she said. “I went to bear witness and I am against it the way it is.”

She encourages people to go to the West Bank and “stay with a Palestinian family and see what a military occupation is like.”

But she is not without hope.

“Ten years ago I used to say my daughter won’t see [peace], but maybe my granddaughters [will]. Now I say my daughter may live to experience it.”

Does she have another book in her, someone asked. “I hope so! I won’t tell anyone what it is because of the CIA!” she exclaimed. “My sort of traveling days have ended due to emphysema. I can’t complain too much. At 83 I can’t expect to be as fit as a flea!

About Bantry House

Click each image to see it at full width –  Bantry House by Andrea Cleghorn (c) 2015, all rights reserved

Bantry House is located in the town of Bantry, on Bantry Bay, in County Cork, Ireland. The house is still occupied by the eighth- and ninth-generations of the original owners: the Lord of Bantry, and the White family. The names have changed—in fact the name of the house has changed a few times since it was built in the 1700’s; and by 1800 the house had been expanded, as had the land it sat on, by that time totaling 80,000 acres.

The events of the annual West Cork Literary Festival take place not only in Bantry House but all over town, in the local library, in restaurants and in various other venues in town. Festivals in the town are plentiful; among them one for chamber music and another for Irish music.

The streets are crowded with those attending the festivals plus bicyclists and hikers traveling the Wild Atlantic Way, a 1500-mile route along the whole west coast of Ireland.

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