Dervla Murphy (born 28 November 1931 in Lismore, County Waterford) is an Irish touring cyclist and author of adventure travel books for over 40 years.
Murphy is best known for her 1965 book Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, about an overland cycling trip through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. She followed this by volunteering with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, and trekking with a mule through Ethiopia. Murphy took a break from travel writing following the birth of her daughter, and then wrote about her travels with Rachel in India, Pakistan, South America, Madagascar and Cameroon. She later wrote about her solo trips through Romania, Africa, Laos, the states of the former Yugoslavia, and Siberia. In 2005 she visited Cuba with her daughter and three granddaughters.
Murphy has normally traveled alone and unaided, without luxuries and depending on the hospitality of local people. She has been in dangerous situations; for example, she was attacked by wolves in the former Yugoslavia, threatened by soldiers in Ethiopia, and robbed in Siberia. However, she described her worst incident as tripping over cats at home and shattering her left arm.
Dervla Murphy was born and raised in Lismore, County Waterford. Her parents were from Dublin and had moved to Lismore when her father was appointed county librarian. When Murphy was one year old, her mother developed rheumatoid arthritis, from which she suffered for the rest of her life. They were advised not to have any more children, and Dervla grew up as an only child. From a young age, Murphy planned to travel: For my tenth birthday my parents gave me a second-hand bicycle and Pappa (her grandfather) sent me a se-cond-hand atlas. Already I was an enthusiastic cyclist, though I had never before owned a bicycle, and soon after my birthday I resolved to cycle to India one day. I have never forgotten the exact spot, on a steep hill near Lismore, where this decision was made. Half-way up I rather proudly looked at my legs, slowly pushing the pedals around, and the thought came “If I went on doing this for long enough I could get to India.”
Murphy attended secondary school at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, but left at age 14 to take care of her disabled mother. During her young adulthood she took a number of short trips (between 3 and 6 weeks): to Wales and Southern England in 1951; to Belgium, Germany, and France in 1952; and two trips to Spain in 1954 and 1956. She published a number of travel articles in the Hibernia journal and the Irish Independent newspaper, but her Spanish travel book was rejected by publishers.
Murphy’s first lover, Godfrey, died abroad in 1958 and her father became unexpectedly ill with nephritis, a complication of influenza, and died in February 1961. Her mother’s health had been deteriorating for many years, and she died in August 1962. Her mother’s death freed Murphy from her domestic duties and allowed her to make the extended trip for which she had long planned:
The hardships and poverty of my youth had been a good apprenticeship for this form of travel. I had been brought up to understand that material possessions and physical comfort should never be confused with success, achievement and security.
Murphy published an autobiography Wheels within Wheels in 1979, describing her life before the journey described in Full Tilt.
Full Tilt and other early writings:
In 1963, Murphy set off on her first long-distance bicycle tour – a self-supported trip from Ireland to India. Taking a pistol along with other equipment aboard Roz, her Armstrong Cadet bicycle, she passed through Europe during one of the worst winters in years. In Yugoslavia, Murphy began to write a journal instead of mailing letters. In Iran she used her gun to frighten off a group of thieves, and “used unprintable tactics” to escape from an attempted rapist at a police station. She received her worst injury of the journey on a bus in Afghanistan, when a rifle butt hit her and fractured three ribs; however, this only delayed her for a short while. She wrote appreciatively about the landscape and people of Afghanistan, calling herself “Afghanatical” and claiming that the Afghan “is a man after my own heart.” In Pakistan, she visited Swat (where she was a guest of the last wali, Miangul Aurangzeb) and the mountain area of Gilgit. The final leg of her trip took her through the Punjab region and over the border to India towards Delhi. Her journal was later published by John Murray as her first book Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.
After arriving in Delhi, Murphy volunteered to work with Tibetan refugees under the auspices of Save the Children. She spent five months in a refugee camp in Dharamsala run by Tsering Dolma, sister of the 14th Dalai Lama. She then cycled through the Kullu Valley, spending Christmas in Malana. Her journals for this time were published in her second book, Tibetan Foothold.
On returning to Europe, Murphy took part in a fundraising campaign for Save the Children, and in 1965 she worked with another group of Tibetan refugees in Pokhara, Nepal (de-scribed in The Waiting Land).
In 1966, Murphy made her first trip to Africa. She travelled to Ethiopia and walked with a pack mule from Asmara to Addis Ababa, confronted by Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers on the way. This journey was described in her fourth book, In Ethiopia with a Mule.
Travels with Rachel:
Murphy’s daughter Rachel accompanied her on a trip to India at the age of five; they flew into Bombay and traveled to Goa and Coorg (described in On a Shoestring to Coorg). The pair later journeyed to Baltistan (Where the Indus is Young), Peru (Eight Feet in the Andes), and Madagascar (Muddling through in Madagascar). Their last trip was through Cameroon on a horse, where Dervla was frequently mistaken for Rachel’s husband (Cameroon with Egbert).
On traveling with a child, she wrote: A child’s presence emphasises your trust in the community’s goodwill. And because children pay little attention to racial or cultural differences, junior companions rapidly demolish barriers of shyness or apprehension often raised when foreigners unexpectedly approach a remote village.
In 1978, Murphy wrote A Place Apart, about her travels in Northern Ireland and encounters with members of the Protestant and Catholic religious communities. She credits her 1982 book Race to the Finish? The Nuclear Stakes as a turning point which led her to write more about political issues. In 1985, she lived for several months in Bradford and Birmingham, talking to members of the Asian, Afro-Caribbean and White communities and witnessing first-hand one of the Handsworth riots (described in Tales From Two Cities). In 1992, she cycled from Kenya to Zimbabwe where she witnessed the impact of AIDS; when describing this journey in The Ukimwi Road, she criticised the role of non-governmental organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. Her other writings include discussions about the aftermath of apartheid (South from the Limpopo) and the Rwandan genocide (Visiting Rwanda), the dis-placement of tribal peoples (One Foot in Laos), and post-war reconstruction of the Balkans (Through the Embers of Chaos).
She is anti-globalization and critical of NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organisation. She has spoken out against nuclear power and climate change.
Murphy stated that some readers disapproved of the “political stuff”, but another group “tells me they haven’t thought about these things in this way before and are glad that I’ve written and thought more about the political side. My view is that I have these things I want to say and I don’t really care if it spoils a pure travel book.”
In 2002, aged 71, Murphy planned to cycle in the Ussuriland region of eastern Russia. She broke her knee while on the Baikal Amur Mainline railway, then tore a calf while recuperat-ing at Lake Baikal and her plans changed to a journey around Siberia by train, boat and bus, documented in Through Siberia by Accident. She revisited Siberia and wrote a companion book, Silverland. In 2005, she visited Cuba with her daughter and three granddaughters, and made two returning trips in 2006 and 2007 (described in The Island that Dared).
She is currently working on a book about the Middle East and her encounters with Israelis and Palestinians.
Personal life and interests:
Murphy never married. In 1968 she gave birth to her only child, Rachel, fathered by Irish Times journalist Terence de Vere White. Her decision to raise her daughter alone was de-scribed as “a brave choice in 1960s Ireland” by The Sunday Business Post, although she said she felt safe from criticism because she was in her 30s and was financially and profes-sionally secure. Following Rachel’s birth, she spent five years as a book reviewer before returning to travel writing.
Murphy lives in Lismore with five dogs and three cats. She is a patron of Sustrans, a British charity for sustainable travel and of the Lismore Immrama Festival of Travel Writing.
In 2009 Murphy appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Great Lives, nominating Freya Stark as a Great Life, supported by expert John Murray VII of the publishing family.