Dervla Murphy died a year ago today. During her 90 years she published 24 acclaimed travel books, from Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, the first and best known of them, from 1965, to Between River and Sea, her unique, enduring record of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from 2015.
In the 50 years between them she spent many months travelling in and writing about an impressive list of regions and countries, including the Balkans, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Laos, Madagascar, Peru, Romania, South Africa, Russia and the Middle East. She produced a book every two years, on average, always returning to her beloved Lismore to write them.
Dervla belongs at the heart of the Irish literary canon, for the sheer quality of her writing as well as for her bravery and travelling savoir faire. Ireland’s travel laureate, she earned prestigious awards in Britain for her writing.
Alongside the books, however, Dervla also had a notable journalistic career, writing regularly for The Irish Times. She began, as this newspaper’s archive reveals, by debating James Joyce’s novel Ulysses on the letters page, unabashedly declaring in June 1958 that it couldn’t possibly be defined as art, as it wasn’t intelligible to most people.
This assertive pronouncement came from a young woman who had never sat a state exam or graced a university lecture theatre. A sustained formal education might have impeded her freethinking mind. Her bookish home environment and fearsome intellect steeled her spine for such a lofty public intellectual debate.
Dervla’s travel writing first appeared here in 1968, a year after her trip to Ethiopia. How exotic it was then to have a young Waterford woman reporting back on her rough, tough African travels.
“Several unsavoury-looking characters tried to ‘help’ the foreigner by leading me to the dosshouse of their choice,” she wrote on January 8th, 1968, “but they were easily deterred, and no one followed when I turned off the quays to explore ill-lit lanes between tall houses. Most of these houses were brothels, but it was too early for business to be brisk, and young Tigrean girls were sitting in the doorways playing with their toddlers (prostitution and family life are not incompatible here), or dressing each other’s hair in the multitudinous tiny plaits traditional among Tigrean women. In the gloom I was often mistaken for a customer, and on realising their error, most of the girls either jeered at me rather nastily or sent their children to beg from me. As first impressions go, one could do better.”
Book reviewing comprised most of Dervla’s Irish Times work. The first review appeared on September 17th, 1966. She specialised in reviewing books about travel, adventure, exploration, geography, anthropology and comparative cultures, covering Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Her reviews always demonstrated careful reading and fair assessment.
On reviewing one book, she was scathing: “Search for the Maya is thoroughly tiresome, only redeemed by its illustrations: and these are not worth £3.25. According to the blurb, Victor von Hagen is an accomplished explorer, naturalist and ethnographer, and a best-selling author. According to this reviewer, he is a villainously bad writer, whose style vacillates between the florid and the banal…”
Her worldly-wise wit often illuminated her writing, as in a piece she wrote in 1973 on being over 40 years old: “Western women need not be as reluctant as they often are to admit to Forty, if that admission earned them the honour and respect shown to the elders of both sexes in most non-European societies. On this point we are curiously primitive beneath all our apparent sophistication and technological whizz-kiddery: once a woman has ceased to be good breeding-stock she depreciates in value.”
She wandered the earth for almost 50 more years after that. Her survival was especially remarkable considering the number of close shaves she had on her trips.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Dervla wrote frequently for this paper. After having a baby, she resumed international travel in 1974, accompanied by her young daughter, Rachel. She was off to India, as she’d say herself, “with foal at foot”.
“By night the Ville Parle bazaar,” she wrote about Bombay, “exuded that commodity beloved of travel-writers and usually labelled ‘atmosphere.’ Narrow streets were lit by a golden glow from hundreds of oil-lamps hanging over stalls heaped with every sort of merchandise: bales of shining silks and vividly patterned cottons, stacks of gleaming copper pots and stainless steel ware, round towers of glittering glass bangles, pyramids of repulsively technicoloured sweetmeats, acres of fresh fruit and vegetables, mountains of coconuts, molehills of cashew-nuts, hillocks of melons, forests of sugar-cane and – to Rachel’s delight – gracefully overflowing baskets of jasmine-blossom. Mingling with the dreamy richness of the jasmine was that most characteristic of all Indian evening smells – incense being burned in countless homes to honour the household gods. (Foul gutters and festering sores, jasmine and incense: India in a nutshell?)”
The late 1970s saw Dervla getting busier with her own travelling and writing – her reputation taking off – so she had less time for book reviewing. The Irish Times printed excerpts from A Place Apart (on Northern Ireland) in 1978 and from her autobiography Wheels within Wheels in 1979. She was certainly back in her writing stride. This trend continued throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, when she also became a prominent activist against nuclear power. One of the 1980s trips was to Madagascar. When the travelling and writing were hard going, a little diversion was sometimes required.
“In the desert villages of Southern Madagascar, do not be tempted by the local hooch, however desperate your need,” she wrote in 1987. “It is sold in opaque, unlabelled bottles and made from the sap of Cycas thouarsii, known to the French as ‘the Man-Eating Tree’. In colonial times (1896-1960) it killed many French officials and I had been exposed to it for less than a fortnight when I developed agonising gout in my left wrist. In the east coast rainforest villages the hooch is like rocket-fuel but not, in my experience, detrimental to health. I believe it is distilled from bananas.”
As the years progressed Dervla became more politically analytical and critical of social injustice. She specialised in seeing things for herself, bearing witness to the details of ordinary people’s everyday lives and, above all, reporting her findings honestly. She certainly didn’t shy away from difficult destinations and situations.
For example, Dervla visited Rwanda in early 1997, not long after the genocide. Her usual freedom to roam was curbed there because of what she laconically termed “tiresome security problems”. She visited aid projects with NGO staff and wrote, in 1998: “I visited a housing project specifically for parentless children – a modest project, run by a small NGO. Over-emotionalism is not one of my flaws yet among those children I more than once came close to tears. For a young family to be orphaned is under any circumstances tragic – but normally, in Africa, a supporting network of relatives and friends remains. For many of these Tutsi orphans, there is nobody left. Everyone they or their parents were close to is dead. The combination of their utter destitution and their joyless, haunted faces shattered me.”
Dervla’s qualities were curiosity, resilience, honesty, kindness, good humour and, above all, empathy. Her style of slow travel allowed time to record people’s stories.
Dervla dedicated her latter years to studying the Israel-Palestine conflict. She spent many months there between 2008 and 2010, then spent a month in Gaza in the summer of 2011. She lived in refugee camps and met people on all sides. Her sympathies ultimately lay with the Palestinians, however, as she had witnessed the horrors wrought upon their lives by the militarised Israeli state. She was against political Zionism and an advocate of the one-state solution.
Dervla’s astute observations and witty writing entertained Irish Times readers over seven decades. She deftly sidestepped the strictures of the priest-ridden society that birthed her. She laughed in the face of social convention, or at least smiled back over her shoulder as she cycled off into the mist towards her next adventure.
Ethel Crowley is the editor of Life at Full Tilt: The Selected Writings of Dervla Murphy, which is due to be published by Eland on November 1st