Remembering Dervla Murphy: a fearless, frank and inspiring travel writer

Frequently with a bike at her side, the late Dervla Murphy navigated countries little known to most travellers. We celebrate the uncompromising life and prolific works of Ireland’s freewheeling travel writer.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 27 May 2022, 14:13 BST
“You are much more likely to make friends with people if you arrive alone on a ...

“You are much more likely to make friends with people if you arrive alone on a bicycle,” said Murphy in 2020. She died at home on 22 May at the age of 90.

Photograph by Alamy

A straight-talking woman of passionate convictions, Dervla Murphy was a travel writer who loved a local beer, hated cruise liners (“I’d pay £10,000 not to set foot on a cruise ship”) and saw mass tourism as a “disaster”. Born in Lismore, County Waterford in 1931, Dervla forged her way out into the world on two wheels. She received a second-hand bicycle and an atlas on her 10th birthday and resolved that she’d one day cycle to India. Her first trip away from Ireland, at the age of 20, saw her biking through England and Wales writing a series of articles for Hibernia magazine. Continental trips followed — sporadic breaks during a 16-year stint nursing her invalid mother. In 1963, once Dervla’s mother had died, she set off by bike for India, as she’d long promised herself, returning home a year later to write her first book, Full Tilt (see below). 

Dervla had one daughter, Rachel, with Terence de Vere White, the then-married literary editor of The Irish Times. She was resolute about bringing Rachel up alone, and her daughter would sometimes be her sole travel companion, although she often tended to set off on her own. “You are much more likely to make friends with people if you arrive alone on a bicycle,” she said in interview in The Times in November 2020. “It makes getting to know people so much simpler. It sends such a message to people that you really do trust them.”

Dervla was a light packer (her preference for travel by bike, mule or on foot forced the issue, and she never learned to drive), and her essential items included a volume of poetry, a big pack of aspirin and an indefatigable curiosity. She relied on making local connections, and despite being attacked by wolves in Bulgaria, robbed in Siberia and threatened by soldiers in Ethiopia, she maintained that her worst incident occurred at home, when she shattered an arm after tripping over her cats.

With an itinerant appetite that endured well into her final decades, Dervla visited more than 30 countries, but said she “wouldn’t live anywhere else than my own little bit of west Waterford”. She always returned home to Lismore, to walk her dogs and swim in the River Blackwater.

Dervla Murphy died at home on 22 May at the age of 90, survived by her daughter Rachel and granddaughters Rose, Clodagh and Zea.

Dervla (left) with her neighbours at home in County Waterford. Despite having visited over 30 countries, she said she “wouldn’t live anywhere else". 

Photograph by Alamy

Six must-read books by Dervla Murphy

1. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965)
Dervla’s debut recounts an epic ride to India. Setting out from Lismore in 1963, she travelled via Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on her trusty bicycle, named Roz, facing 50ft snowdrifts in the Turkish highlands and some punishing pedalling through the heat of the Himalayan summer. Eland, £14.99

2. Where the Indus Is Young (1977)
A vivid travelogue detailing Dervla’s somewhat extreme winter hiking trip through Baltistan, in the northern Kashmir region, battling temperatures that dipped to minus 20C. She was accompanied by her daughter, Rachel, then aged six; the only person Dervla ever deigned to travel with. Eland, £12.99

3. A Place Apart (1978)
At the height of the Troubles, aiming to put aside the sectarian loyalties that might have come from her own family connections to the IRA, Dervla cycled to Northern Ireland to try to unpick the situation, creating a travelogue that features revealing interviews and exchanges with locals on both sides of the divide. Eland, £13.99

4. Wheels Within Wheels (1979)
In the autobiography that followed seven travel books, Dervla notes: “Even at 16, I had a strong premonition that I would never marry. Possibly the predictability of the average marriage put me off; it was the antithesis of my ideal unplanned existence — travelling, writing, not knowing what was going to happen next year or next month or even next week.” Eland, £14.99

5. Through Siberia by Accident (2006)
Due to a painful leg injury, Dervla had to rethink her planned trip to Ussuriland, a Russian outpost free of anything remotely touristic, to explore the vast territories of Siberia instead. There she found humbling hospitality and generosity from local hosts during a journey of self-discovery and contradiction — human warmth and kindness against a bleak, unforgiving backdrop. John Murray Press, £10.99

6. A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza (2013)
Over the summer of 2011, in her 80th year, Dervla spent a month in the Gaza Strip in Palestine. Described by Irish novelist Colm Tóibín as a “a wake-up call to the world”, Dervla’s determination to understand how Arab Palestinians and Israeli Jews might find resolution gives voice to those rarely heard in the region and offers a unique insight into a place shaped by isolation. Eland, £12.99

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