“If you are not afraid, you do not need courage”
Dervla Murphy places a bowl of homemade soup in front of me as honest as she herself is. When I meet a world renowned dean in travel writing, I don’t necessarily expect warm hospitality, but that’s exactly what I get. As she nears her 90th birthday, she is surrounded by books and warmed by her beloved dog and two cats.
Dervla starts each day very early at her home in West Waterford, fueling her body with a hearty breakfast and her mind with news from BBC Radio 4, Al Jazeera and online newspapers such as Haaretz. She says, âThe Internet is a huge advantage for me now when I am so restricted in my movements. I can see the world through Al Jazeera’s eyes â. His physical journeys are now over, but his intellectual journeys continue. She still reads voraciously, writes shorter pieces and reviews books.
She is far more interested in asking me questions about current events – really difficult questions, I should add – than in answering one of mine. She put aside most of her travel memories and my questions sometimes get exasperated responses “I don’t remember!” After all, for over 50 years, she’s done pretty much one trip and a resulting book every two years – adventurous but very disciplined. It is a truly amazing legacy. It’s such a clichÃ© to say that if she were a man she would be celebrated much more in Ireland. However, clichÃ©s exist for a reason.
Dervla defied all conventions, quietly. She has always lived exactly on her own terms, regardless of social expectations. His travels would test the toughest people of all sexes. Dervla had her daughter Rachel in 1968 as a single woman. She circumvented the restrictions on living in Catholic Ireland, enjoying the relative freedom to live on the fringes of social life. Her private life is just that: Private. She kept her life manageable by avoiding fame. Rachel has accompanied her on several trips over the years, and now her three daughters are Dervla’s pride and joy.
It also defies categorization. Environmentalism, feminism, socialism, and Buddhism are all influences. However, she is a truly original thinker who has never been able to tolerate a preconceived and uncritical formula. She says she is philosophically humanist. “People control the world and they must behave responsibly when exercising that control.”
She rejects the idea that she is an atheist: âIt is too aggressive a term. I am not against any religion. I just never felt the need to join any. I do not condemn any religion, I only condemn extremism of any kind. Absolutely uninhibited in the conversation, she easily talks about everything from the prevalence of sex tourism in Japan to the latest military technology she’s read in Jane’s Defense Weekly.
His insatiable curiosity for everything keeps his mind fresh. One way or another, the city of Cologne comes back in our conversation: “I was there after the war”. She cycled through flattened Germany in 1949. Unbelievable. While his bike wheels have stopped now, his cognitive wheels are still accelerating at a steady pace. She approaches any subject with a mind as open as an African savannah.
Her travels have taken her across land to India, Nepal, Tibet, Himalayas, Cuba, Siberia, the Russian Far East, the Balkans, Transylvania, Laos, Rwanda, the South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Peru, Gaza and Israel, among others.
It is obviously impossible to recount here the details of all these trips. Upon returning from the trips, she would go “to purdah” to write the notes for the forensic book, with the final manuscripts produced on an electric typewriter.
All trips were tests of extreme physical endurance, through scorching deserts and snow-capped passes. She hates cities. She traveled most often by bicycle, but sometimes also by mule, as in Ethiopia and Peru.
One of her scariest moments was when she was attacked, beaten and robbed in Ethiopia. She has handled crises and disasters with steadfast common sense and a casual good humor. Another time was in Belfast in the 1970s, very noticeably afraid of a night cycle in the Antrim Road area.
Dervla objects to the idea that she has shown courage in her life. âIf you are fearless, you don’t need courage. It is only if you are afraid that you need courage to overcome your fears.
I persist. âWell, in so many decades of traveling there was very little to alarm me. I may have been shaken at times, but not enough to affect future plans. “
She attributes this fearlessness to her parenthood. âAt the age of 16, in 1947, it was my mother who suggested that I travel the continent on my own by bicycle – few mothers have done that!
His books are supported by extensive research into the society, geography and culture of each chosen country. They are littered with stories of dangerous journeys, mostly on his trusty bike. She broke her ribs and contracted hepatitis and dysentery. She was attacked by wolves once and shot them down. This is what the current generation might call âextreme travelâ.
After a visit to Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the power plant that suffered partial nuclear meltdown in 1979, she wrote a book criticizing nuclear power, which she still hates. These days, âclimate worried people are accepting the nuclear industry’s propaganda now that it is ‘clean’ and the obvious energy solution. What about uranium miners and what to do with nuclear waste?
His book on Northern Ireland, A Place Apart, attempted to get under the skin of the place at the height of the war. He was highly respected by academics who studied the area.
One of my favorites is Tales From Two Cities, in which she deals with race relations in the north of England. She stayed in Bradford and Birmingham for about three months each. She oscillated between ethnography, sociology and journalism, sharing conversations (“chat-shows”) with people she met in pubs and houses. She was really interested in perceptions, what people were feeling and why. Research of this magnitude could easily have formed the basis of a doctorate in sociology; many academics have built their careers with much less.
Further on, Dervla visited Rwanda shortly after the 1994 genocide. After that trip, she said: “Rwanda … forces us to face the evil inherent in each of us as human beings. – as human and compassionate as we may seem as untested individuals … nothing that is done by humans is inhuman.
Dervla’s empathetic nature tries to reach the essence of every person, whether they are a mother, a minor or a maharaja. It also deplores the injustice, as evidenced by its public support for the Palestinian people.
Dervla’s London editor, Barnaby Rogerson at Eland Publishing, says of her: âDervla has always upheld the most amazing integrity and independence that totally complements her writing profession.
He continues, “She is unique, an incredibly precious witness to the world who is so harsh, brilliant, outspoken, honest, and will no doubt in future ages be hailed as a humanistic prophet.”
She recently won the prestigious Stanford’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her travel writing. She self-mockingly refuses to discuss it, really uncomfortable with such distinctions.
Dervla Murphy was a travel pioneer and broke the mold regarding the meaning of Irish femininity. She has been a role model for generations of world travelers, but especially Irish women.