Dervla Murphy: Irish Writer Who Preferred Her Bike As She Traveled the World

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Dervla Murphy, Irish Travel Writer Who Preferred Her Bike, Dies at 90”:

For her 10th birthday, Dervla Murphy received a secondhand bicycle and an atlas. As she rode up a hill near her home that day in Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland, she thought that if she pedaled long enough, she could get to India.

“Now I saw how I could travel in reality — alone, independent and needing very little money,” she wrote in her memoir, “Wheels Within Wheels” (1979). “A 10-year-old’s decision to cycle to India might have seemed to many adults an amusing childish whim. But giving me material for dreaming about something that I knew could be attained, it offered a healthier outlet for my imaginings than my usual escapist fantasies.”

Starting in her 30s, Ms. Murphy turned her wild imaginings into reality. In her most celebrated journey, which she described in her first book, “Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle” (1965), she rode from Dunkirk, France, through Europe and on to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

She became a leading travel writer, a fearless and curious loner who filled her rucksack with pens, a notebook, a light but warm sleeping bag and a change of clothing. Traveling mainly by bicycle but also on foot, by mule and in Jeeps and buses, she spent months at a time in Ethiopia, Peru, Cuba, Israel, Gaza, Madagascar, Nepal, Tibet, Baltistan, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Romania and Northern Ireland.

Ms. Murphy died on May 22 at her home in Lismore.

Dervilla Maria Murphy was born in Lismore. Her father, Fergus, was the county librarian. Her mother, Kathleen, had rheumatoid arthritis that left her unable to walk by the time Dervla was 2.

Dervla left a convent school when she was 14 to care full time for her mother. Her ambitions and her travel were thwarted until her mother’s death 16 years later. Once liberated (“I was exalted by the realization of freedom,” she wrote in “Wheels Within Wheels”), she plotted the trip to India and set off in the winter of 1963.

“To have the fulfillment of a 21-year-old ambition within one’s grasp can be quite disconcerting,” she wrote in “Full Tilt.” “This was a moment I had thought about so often that when I actually found myself living through it I felt as though some favorite scene from a novel had come, incredibly, to life.”

She braved subzero cold, blizzards and extreme desert heat on that first trip. She watched two men who were trying to clear a snowdrift fall to their deaths when their plow skidded off a precipice.

When a wolf in Bulgaria was about to attack her, she killed it with a pistol; in Turkey, she wrote, when a “scantily clad” Kurdish intruder bent over in the moonlight in the hostel room where she was staying, she fired a warning shot into the ceiling and sent him fleeing.

But those experiences did not deter her.

“At times during these past weeks,” she wrote about Afghanistan in “Full Tilt,” “I felt so whole and so at peace that I was tempted seriously to consider settling in the Hindu Kush. Nothing is false there, for humans and animals and earth, intimately interdependent, partake together in the rhythmic cycle of nature. To lose one’s petty, sophisticated complexities in that world would be heaven — but impossible, because of the fundamental falsity involved in attempting to abandon our own unhappy heritage.”

“Full Tilt” was something of a template for her two dozen books: A tough and passionate loner on a bike, which she called Roz, travels the world at a leisurely pace, cut off happily (and, in her view, necessarily) from her world.

When “Full Tilt” was published in the United States in 1986, Andrew Harvey wrote in his review that it was “not a kebab of clipped or funny anecdotes; it is, most memorably in the marvelous pages about Afghanistan before the Soviet takeover, a tribute to an ancient but menaced world.”

For “Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule in Unknown Peru” (1983), Ms. Murphy, accompanied by her daughter, Rachel, who was then 9, traveled 1,300 miles in the Andes from Cajamarca to Cuzco. Rachel accompanied her mother on other trips as well.

“People consider it insanity for us to set out with only basic supplies to a part of the country that had no roads, no hospitals, no services,” Ms. Murphy told The Guardian in 2018. “But that was why we were there in the first place.”

Ms. Murphy did not finish her trips unscathed. She broke nine ribs. She was bitten by a scorpion in Afghanistan. She contracted amoebic dysentery, brucellosis, gout, hepatitis and tick bite fever. She fractured her coccyx, broke a foot and needed a new hip after a fall in Palestine.

“The triple tooth abscess in Cameroon was the most painful of all, though,” she said. “I thought I was going mad.”

At home, Ms. Murphy lived in a small stone house that was part of an old cattle market. She had many books but no car, heat, dishwasher, washing machine or television.

“There was a book hut, a guest hut, something called the cow shed (where she slept) and a covered area where old carts rusted and wood for the stove was kept dry,” Mr. Rogerson said.

Mr. Rogerson said that Ms. Murphy left behind one unpublished book, about her time in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, a reflection of her desire to travel to hot spots like Africa (“The Ukimwi Road” was about people affected by AIDS), Israel and Palestine (“Between the River and Sea”), and Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1970s (“A Place Apart”).

“She tested some loyal readers as she became more political and got some backlash,” Mr. Rogerson said. “But she was never a champagne socialist. She lived her principles. A patriot who was seriously concerned about international issues.”

When she received the Edward Stanford Award for outstanding travel writing in 2021, Michael Palin of Monty Python, who went on to become a travel writer and documentarian, told her in a video tribute: “What you have is this mixture of open honesty combined with fearlessness. You’ll ask anybody anything and they’ll open up and talk to you, and it’s your ability to give yourself to the people you’re talking to that makes for great revelations.”

She was also the subject of a 2010 documentary, “Who Is Dervla Murphy?”

In addition to Rachel Murphy, her daughter, Ms. Murphy is survived by three granddaughters. She never married. Her daughter’s father was a married editor at The Irish Times; she had asked him to father her child, but the two did not have a relationship.

Once, on a blistering hot day on a desolate road in Iran, an American engineer stopped in his Jeep to offer Ms. Murphy a ride.

“This track isn’t fit for a camel,” she recalled him saying in “Full Tilt.”

“When you’re on a bicycle, instead of in a Jeep, it doesn’t feel like a frying pan,” she replied.

Then, frustrated by her refusal to accept his help, he shouted, “You are a goddam nut case!”

“I regard this sort of life,” she wrote in recounting the incident, “with just Roz and me and the sky and the earth as sheer bliss.”

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

 

Speak Your Mind

*