Intrepid travel book author Dervla Murphy dies at 90

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Dervla Murphy, an Irish travel writer who got her started prodigious career with an epic 1963 solo bicycle journey across Europe to India and went on to explore vast swathes of the developing world on foot – defying social expectations of women along the way – died on May 22 at his home in Lismore, Ireland. She was 90 years old.

His London publisher Eland Books announced the death. She had recently suffered a series of attacks.

Decades before Cheryl Strayed walked the Pacific Crest Trail with little preparation and made it into her hit memoir “Wild,” inspired by Mrs. Murphy generations of readers by embarking on one journey after another with minimal equipment but an abundance of courage.

For Ms Murphy, her serious journeys began in her thirties after many years of caring for her disabled mother. Later, as a single mother, she supported herself and her daughter through her travel writing. She has published a total of 26 books.

“She provided a model of independence, of freedom of spirit, for a whole generation of women when there was no one else like it in Ireland,” said fellow travel writer Manchán Magan in the 2016 documentary film “Who Is Dervla Murphy?”

Very active from the 1960s to the 1990s, Ms. Murphy was drawn to areas of the world almost untouched by industrialization, urbanization and consumer culture, where people lived without access to modern plumbing or electricity. , not to mention satellite TVs and cell phones to come. .

At home in Lismore, where she lived in a maze of old stone rooms with no central heating, she never learned to drive a car or use a computer. She avoided small talk and regularly turned down book tours and interviews. “Interviewing Dervla is like trying to open an oyster with a wet bus ticket,” said Jock Murray, its first editor, said once.

She gave up basic comforts when she traveled, often sleeping in a tent and using latrines, and admitted to being “insensitive” to discomfort. “It literally doesn’t matter to me whether I sleep on the floor or on a mattress,” she said in the documentary. “I just don’t notice the difference. And that’s a really big plus when traveling.

She also insisted that it was not correct to call her courageous. “You are only brave if you do something you are afraid to do. I’m fearless when it comes to physicality, and that’s a totally different thing,” she said.

His first book, “Full Tilt” (1965), was billed as a journey “from Ireland to India”, but was more specifically the story of a journey from Dunkirk, France, to Delhi. She planned the trip after being given a bicycle and an atlas for her 10th birthday but kept her plan to herself, she writes, “avoiding the tolerant fun it would have caused in my elders. I didn’t want to be soothingly assured that it was just a passing whim, as I was quite confident that one day I would have cycle to India.

She began the self-funded journey some two decades later, on January 14, 1963, on “Roz,” a 37-pound men’s bicycle stripped of its three-speed derailleur and loaded with basic supplies, including blank notebooks and a compass. When she arrived in Delhi after six months, she had written thousands of words and cycled around 3,000 miles. His total expenses were £64.

His journey began in the middle of a blizzard – which would fall in Britain history like the Big Freeze of 1963 – as she pedaled through frostbite along icy roads. The gales on the roads of Slovenia were strong enough to knock her off her bike, and when the snow began to melt, the raging Morava River separated her from Roz.

She faced other dangers: wolves biting her in Bulgaria, a Serb who entered her room at night uninvited, and three men carrying shovels along a road near Tabriz, Iran. , who attempted to rob Roz. In each case, she used the .25 pistol she had brought for the trip for protection, killing a wolf with a bullet to the skull and firing warning shots to scare off the men.

His the adventure took her through small villages, and she dedicated “Full Tilt” to her “hosts” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who often greeted her with warmth and food despite their bewilderment at an enterprising woman such a trek. She did not know their languages ​​but took the time to learn about their customs, religions and governments. She also sold her pistol in Afghanistan, “becoming an arms dealer”, she joked in the documentary, and after that she carried a knife instead of a gun, which she feared. -it, would aggravate the violence.

His subsequent books, set in Tibet, Nepal, India, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Peru, mix food criticism, political and religious reporting and poetic musings of the romantic-sublime variety, such as when the thrust from a mountaintop or the stillness of a glacial lake has overcome it. But the writing never strayed from its main subject: everyday encounters with the landscape and its inhabitants, from rowdy children to pompous local officials to semi-domesticated animals.

In “Eight Feet in the Andes” (1983), she travels away from the grid with her 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, and the mule that carried her, Juana (hence the “eight” feet). A big part of their quest is finding alfalfa or oats that Juana can eat each day. In “The Cameroons with Egbert” (1990), the most memorable of a litany of quasi-biblical calamities – including clouds of biting flies, torrential rains and hailstorms, malaria, mountain trails that end abruptly in precipices, food shortages and lack of shelter – occurs when their trusted packhorse Egbert is stolen.

Over time, Ms. Murphy’s writings became more politically explicit. She traveled to Northern Ireland amid decades of sectarian violence known as “The Troubles” to better understand the militant Irish Republican Army. Subsequent books focused on the Rwandan genocide, the troubles in the Balkans, the legacy of the Vietnam War in Laos, and the cycle of violence in the Gaza Strip.

Some readers have criticized his later books as polemics, preferring the colorful travelogue entries to his anti-capitalist and sometimes anti-American diatribes.. But this was difficult to separate his deeply held environmental beliefs and opposition to globalization from his joyful discovery of some of the most remote places on earth.

As she wrote in “Eight Feet in the Andes”: “There is much more to such experiences than visual beauty; there is also another kind of beauty, necessary for humanity but difficult to put into words. This is the beauty of freedom: freedom from an ugly, artificial, dehumanizing, discontented world in which man has lost his bearings.

Ms Murphy began her long journeys after the death of her parents, Irish Catholics in Dublin. On their wedding day, the couple moved to Lismore so her father could take up a position as county librarian. Dervla Murphy – their only child, who was officially named Dervilla Maria Murphy to appease a priest who deemed her name pagan – was born on November 28, 1931.

His mother suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. ‘On my first birthday she couldn’t walk without the aid of a stick and on my second she couldn’t walk at all,’ Ms Murphy wrote in her 1979 memoir ‘Wheels Within Wheels’. After attending secondary school at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, she left at 14 to take care of his mother. She did so for the next decade, until her father died of complications from the flu in 1961 and her mother died of kidney failure in 1962.

If her mother’s immobility helped her to travel, so did her mother’s guidance. “She was the first person who suggested I travel by bike,” Ms Murphy noted in the documentary. “She thought it would be a substitute for the education I had missed.”

In the mid-1960s, Ms Murphy was romantically involved with Terence de Vere White, then Irish Times literary editor, who was married and had children. He was Rachel’s biological father but by mutual consent was not involved in her upbringing and for years they kept his paternity a secret.

Mrs. Murphy is survived by her daughter and three granddaughters.

As she got older, Mrs Murphy was increasingly mistaken for a man while traveling. Her voice was deep, her hair short, and she was muscular enough that pounding her on a table first, or punching someone, was enough to disperse would-be attackers.

By the time she was 55 and traveling to West Africa with Rachel, then 18, for “Cameroon With Egbert”, locals were convinced of her manhood. Many assumed that she and Rachel were husband and wife.

She speculated that this gender mistake happened not only because of her physique, but also because the idea that women traveling on foot alone through the countryside was unthinkable. She tried to correct the misperception with limited success, until halfway through the trip to Cameroon, she tried another approach: she started unbuttoning her shirt in public at the first sign of misunderstanding. She was, like her literary voice, frank and persuasive.

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