Dervla Murphy is an intrepid adventurer and prolific travel writer who has journeyed across the world for over five decades, usually by bicycle and usually alone, detailing her experiences in a series of hugely popular and critically acclaimed books. Fearless, fiercely independent, and eschewing the expectations of her sex, she has been both a pioneer and an inspiration.
Dervla was born in Lismore, County Waterford, in 1931. She was educated at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford but had to leave school at age 14 in order to care for her mother, who suffered with arthritis.
Despite her responsibilities at home, Dervla was able to take several short trips to various parts of Europe throughout the early 1950s, writing about her experiences for The Irish Independent newspaper and the Hibernia journal.
On her 10th birthday she was given a second-hand bicycle by her parents and an atlas by her grandfather. Writing in her autobiography, Dervla explains that it was while riding that bicycle, looking down at her own legs as she powered up a steep hill, that she imagined cycling from Ireland to India.
It was over 20 years later before that idea became reality. The deaths of both parents, her father in 1961 and her mother in 1962, meant that Dervla was now able to pursue her love of travel. In 1963 she embarked on her first long distance journey, a bicycle tour from Ireland to India. Her journey took her through Europe during one of its coldest winters on record; she then travelled to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, finally, to Delhi.
Throughout this trip, Dervla kept a journal in which she charted her adventures with her trusty bicycle, “Roz” (named Rozinante after Don Quixote’s horse). These diaries were published in book form in 1965. Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle was her first and probably best-known work.
Dervla’s subsequent two books, Tibetan Foothold and The Waiting Land, describe her experiences working as a Save the Children volunteer in refugee camps and orphanages in India and Nepal. In 1966 she made her first trip to Africa, and her fourth publication, In Ethiopia With a Mule, recounts her hazardous three-month trek from Asmara to Addis Ababa with a mule named Jock (after her publisher) as transport.
She would go on to write 26 travel books in total. Many, especially her early volumes, describe in rich detail the time she spent in remote communities, often depending entirely on the hospitality of local people. She usually travelled alone and frequently encountered challenging conditions, forbidding landscapes and dangerous situations. She was attacked by wolves in the former Yugoslavia, contracted dysentery in Pakistan and hepatitis in Madagascar, had a serious accident in Palestine which resulted in her needing a new hip and was robbed by armed bandits who threatened her life in Ethiopia.
In 1968 Dervla had her first and only child, a daughter called Rachel. Even though she was in her late thirties and financially secure, to be an unmarried woman raising a child alone in 1960s Ireland was a very brave choice. “I didn’t care what people thought”, she says. “I just got on with it.” *1
Following Rachel’s birth, Dervla spent several years working as a book reviewer. However, she returned to travel writing when her daughter was five years old, and the pair travelled to Mumbai, Goa and Coorg. This trip was described in Dervla’s book, On a Shoestring to Coorg. Mother and daughter continued to travel together to Baltistan, Madagascar and Cameroon, all journeys which Dervla turned into acclaimed travel books.
As time went on, Dervla developed a more political voice and wrote several books detailing her experiences in fragile and volatile areas. Her 1978 book, A Place Apart, for example, is a humorous but often darkly sombre description of her travels in Northern Ireland, depicting the country’s politics and communities. She has written on the effect of mass genocide in Rwanda, the Balkans following the wars in the former Yugoslavia, post-apartheid South Africa and the conflict in the Middle East.
Dervla has also spoken out against climate change and nuclear power, and her 1982 book, Race to the Finish? The Nuclear Stakes, discusses her observations on the nuclear industry.
Although an extremely private person, Dervla published her autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels, in 1979, and in 2016 she was the subject of a documentary called Who is Dervla Murphy? Even in her 80s Dervla was travelling and writing. Her final book, Between River and Sea, was published in 2015 and details her experiences in Israel and Palestine.
Now 88, Dervla has ‘reluctantly’ retired from travel writing *2. She lives in Lismore, County Waterford, in a collection of stone buildings with no central heating and no television, where she still writes, in longhand, and enjoys a glass of her favourite tipple, beer.
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