Sunday, Jun 26, 2022

Iconic Traveller And Avid Cyclist Dervla Murphy Dies At 90

Murphy bent all the rules and faced life full tilt to become a role model for many travellers and travel writers.

Iconic Traveller And Avid Cyclist Dervla Murphy Dies At 90
Dervla Murphy in Barcelona in the late 1950s Eland Books

You would have to be living under a rock if you - as an intrepid traveller - have not heard of the iconic Dervla Murphy, or read her book Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965). There's a cult following for her account of a six-month journey through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas into Pakistan and India.

The Irish travel writer, and avid cyclist, left behind a legacy of travel books when she died at the age of 90 last week.

Murphy got hooked on cycling in Lismore in Ireland where she grew up. She had said in an interview with The Irish Times, “I’m very much one for living in the present, and I’m content when I’m travelling or at home working on the next book or walking or cycling around west Waterford."

Murphy enthralled readers with all of 25 books on her travels all over the world – to Peru, Pakistan, Africa, India, Siberia, Cuba, Romania, Laos, Israel and Palestine. Her writing and travel have been inspirational for her many fans, including Michael Palin. Fellow travel writer, Colin Thubron described her work as “unpretentious, shiningly honest and accessible”, saying that her books were marked by “earthy humour and charm”.

It was no mean feat for a female traveller to leave her home in 1963 in order to cycle across Europe and Asia to India. She became quite the compulsive traveller and returned to India several times. In her book On a Shoestring to Coorg, she travelled to India with her four-year-old daughter Rachel. Speaking about her journey to the BBC in 2015, Murphy had said: "When I looked at an atlas I realised you could actually get to to India from Ireland on a bicycle with just two little tiny stretches of water in the way".

She was born in 1931 in Waterford city in southern Ireland, and would always return to her home in Waterford after her travels saying that she couldn’t live anywhere else than her own little bit of West Waterford.

She rode on her personal bicycle ‘Roz’ and carried a 0.25 pistol on this journey across Europe and Asia. Rosita Boland wrote in an article “I bet she was the only one who carried out the audacious ambition she forged that day: to cycle one day to India.” She is considered the bravest of all travel writers as she travelled on bicycles, on foot, mules, public transport and traveled to places where travellers (especially women) would generally never go in the 1960s. Her journeys have inspired female solo travellers from around the world.

Her publisher Eland Books described Murphy as the 'secular saint' of travel writing because she was extremely interested in listening to people from different communities, lending her ears to people’s views, beliefs and customs. Her travels to Palestine and Israel, informed in her books, reveal humanity rather than political messages shared through the media.

Murphy is also known for her travels to Northern Ireland, where she communicated with the Protestant and Catholic communities. Given the troubled history of Ireland, this was a generous step in establishing relationships with the hostile state, the contents of which were then published in A Place Apart: Northern Ireland, which won her the Christopher Ewart-Biggs memorial prize in 1978. Her other awards include the Ness Award presented by the Royal Geographical Society in 2019 on the “popularisation of geography through travel literature”, and the prestigious Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing in 2021.

Commenting on the loss of the exploring 'the unknown', Murphy had recently said, "“In the travellers’ world, social media have enlarged the generation gap. The internet has brought a change in the very concept of travel as a process taking one away from the familiar into the unknown. Now the familiar is not left behind and the unknown has become familiar even before one leaves home. Unpredictability – to my generation the salt that gave travelling its savour – seems unnecessary if not downright irritating to many of the young.'