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“I Love Debauching People!”: The Trailblazing Ways of Ireland’s Greatest Travel Writer

By Michael Shapiro

Jun 10, 2022

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When the late Irish adventurer writer Dervla Murphy turned 10 years old, she received two gifts that confirmed her direction in life: a bicycle and an atlas.

Photo by Tara Heinemann

When the late Irish adventurer writer Dervla Murphy turned 10 years old, she received two gifts that confirmed her direction in life: a bicycle and an atlas.

The late Irish adventurer writer Dervla Murphy was born into a world that didn’t want her to travel. She did it anyway.

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Lismore, a small town in Ireland’s County Waterford, is the stuff of legends: cobbled lanes, old stone houses, hills blanketed in rhododendrons, and a 12th-century castle overlooking it all. It was also the home, for nearly a century, of one of the world’s most beloved travel writers, Dervla Murphy.

In 2013, as I arrived at the iron gates guarding her rustic house, Dervla, then age 82, greeted me with a powerful bear hug and thrust a can of beer into my hand. I hesitated—it was still morning and I’d only been up for a couple of hours. Dervla laughed and toasted debauchery, saying: “I love debauching people!”

A bit hunched due to a shoulder injury, Dervla ushered me inside and brought out a salad of boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and a loaf of home-baked brown bread. Then she emerged with an armload of beers. “The drunken orgy’s underway!” she hollered in her resonant Irish brogue. “I’m a wreck!”

After a couple of pints, I asked where the bathroom was. Dervla pointed to an overgrown patch in her yard and shouted, “Arrggg, go kill a weed!” then laughed heartily. I had to remind myself that this was the author of more than two dozen books, acclaimed for her eloquent prose and keen insights into humanity, a 20th-century trailblazer who embarked on trips that few could imagine.

An avid populist who sided with the world’s underdogs, Dervla, as all who knew her called her, traveled rough: in Ethiopia with a mule, across Tibet on foot, through 1,300 miles of the Andes on horseback. Her self-deprecating titles hint at her adventurous spirit: Muddling Through Madagascar, Eight Feet in the Andes (a reference to her and her young daughter’s feet and the horse’s four hooves), One Foot in Laos (she’d hurt her leg and hobbled through that trip), Through Siberia by Accident (she’d intended to cycle but a leg injury changed her plans).

She immersed herself in local cultures, from the Himalayas to South America, by connecting with local people. And she inspired countless readers to follow in her footsteps. “She may have been oblivious to the countless travelers she inspired and will continue to inspire, particularly women,” says Patricia Schultz, author of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, “encouraging us by example to travel widely, alone when possible, and to listen, always. And promising us we would find the world as she did, ‘sheer bliss’.”

After a lifetime of exploration and literary acclaim, Dervla died May 22 at home in Lismore at age 90.

In his 2011 book The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux has a chapter titled “Murphy’s Rules of Travel” citing her as “a traveler I have admired for most of my traveling life.” Among Dervla’s rules, Theroux writes: “Choose your country, use guidebooks to identify the areas most frequented by foreigners—and then go in the opposite direction.” After she died, Theroux told me: “You’d have to look to the 19th century to find her equal, as a solitary woman traveler with such courage and such heart.”

On her first overland trip, Dervla Murphy spent six months cycling through some of the worst winter weather on record, beginning in France and ending in India, a journey chronicled in “Full Tilt.”

A child’s clarity

Dervilla Maria Murphy (she shortened her first name to Dervla) was born on November 28, 1931, to Kathleen and Fergus Murphy. Her father was a librarian, stoking an early love for books. The town of Lismore, and the whole of County Waterford, was primarily a rural community, where Roman Catholicism and traditional values dominated.

Even in her earliest years, Dervla was blessed with sensing her life’s path. “In a letter to my father-in-law my mother reported that when I was four—not yet able to read—I picked up a Little Grey Rabbit book,” Murphy wrote in her 1979 autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels, “and pointing to the author’s name on the title-page said, ‘When I’m grown up I’m going to write books and have my name there.’ My mother commented, ‘I think she means it. She is a very decided and determined child’.”

On November 28, 1941, the day Dervla turned 10, she received two gifts that confirmed her direction: a secondhand atlas and a used bicycle. Dervla peddled up to Round Hill by the River Blackwater, about a mile and a half from her home. At the end of that ride, shaded by a canopy of oak and ash trees and gazing at herds of cattle lolling on distant hills, she vowed: “Someday, I’ll ride all the way to India.”

Dervla’s mother was incapacitated by rheumatoid arthritis and, at age 14, Dervla left boarding school to be her primary caretaker, a task that would occupy her for the next 16 years. After Kathleen died in August 1962, Dervla prepared for her first great adventure, a six-month bike ride from the northern tip of France to India that would form the basis of her first book, Full Tilt. She bought a compass and maps of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia; changed her bike from three speeds to a single speed in hopes of avoiding mechanical problems; and studied the history of the places she planned to visit.

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It’s hard to imagine today how different rural Ireland was six decades ago, when Dervla embarked upon her Full Tilt trip. Religion was a powerful force, women had prescribed roles, and even wearing blue jeans, as Dervla did, was considered a rebellious act. At the time, solo cycling to remote regions was something women just didn’t do, didn’t even imagine, but Dervla always charted her own course, society’s expectations be damned.

Setting off by bicycle

In January 1963, Dervla and her Armstrong Cadet bicycle, which she nicknamed Roz, made their way to Dunkirk, France, where she began her overland journey. She cycled through Europe during what turned out to be one of the coldest winters of the 20th century (now referred to as the Big Freeze of 1963, with temperatures that plummeted as low as -3°F), then continued pedaling solo across Iran and Afghanistan, all the way to India.

Because she’d waited so many years to see the world, she couldn’t bear to wait another couple of months for better weather. Dervla pedaled into blizzards and had to push her bike through slush and snow. Perhaps the most harrowing moment of that trip was when she fended off a wolf in the country then known as Yugoslavia by firing the gun she carried throughout the trip.

Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by Bicycle came out in 1965. Her writing was candid, frank, often boozy (she never shied away from a drink!), and full of rich detail. While Dervla had no formal writing training, her book was lauded by reviewers and embraced by readers who appreciated Dervla’s courageous spirit and relentless determination. It also introduced a much-needed female voice into the very male world of travel writing.

Dervla set the standard “when it came to intrepid travel, to journeying to the most difficult places on earth,” said author and essayist Pico Iyer. “[She broke] up the comfortable old boys’ club that dominated writing on place for so long.”

Many readers were also impressed by her fortitude. “I cycled up to the Rouen Youth Hostel with a quarter-inch icicle firmly attached to my nose,” she wrote in Full Tilt. But she barely noticed the ordeals of travel—she celebrated its joys.

Part of that pleasure was traveling light. “So I’m down to two pens, writing-paper, Blake’s poems, map, passport, camera, comb, toothbrush, one spare pair of nylon pants and nylon shirt—and there’s plenty of room left over for food as required from day to day,” she wrote while in Kabul. “It’s a good life that teaches you how little you need to be healthy and happy, if not particularly clean.”

On that first trip, Dervla developed the daily habit of taking meticulous notes, before her memories became colored by subsequent events. During her travels, she slept with her arms around her journal. The loss of any other item wouldn’t concern her, she told me, but her written recollections were “the one thing I would defend with my life.”

Dervla’s 26 books, written over the course of five-plus decades, showcase her intrepid spirit and curious, compassionate mind. A handful of her finest: 

Finding her foothold

After thousands of miles of bicycle travel, Dervla volunteered in the latter part of 1963 to help Tibetan exiles in India, spending five months working at a refugee camp in Dharamsala run by the Dalai Lama’s sister. Her journals from this time would later become the basis for her second book, Tibetan Foothold.

The publication of her first book, Full Tilt, in 1965 put Dervla Murphy on the literary map and laid the foundation for her literary career. In 1966 she traveled to Ethiopia, her first trip to Africa, and found she enjoyed walking through remote regions with a pack animal. Her book about this journey, In Ethiopia with a Mule, came out in 1968.

By the late 1960s, Dervla had achieved financial security and decided she wanted a child but not a husband; after an assignation with a journalist from the Irish Times she became pregnant. Her lifelong friend and neighbor Catherine Rotte-Murray, a retired nurse in Lismore, said that though Dervla “didn’t adhere to the conventional expectations of Irish society, especially during the repressive church-ridden decades of her youth, she was admired and widely respected.”

Dervla’s daughter, Rachel, was born in 1968. Dervla didn’t travel much for the next five years, caring for Rachel and earning some money by reviewing books. But mother and daughter didn’t entirely stay put. “I mean, I took her to Europe to do a little bit of gentle mountaineering when she was three and four just to get her into training,” Dervla said at a 2006 literary conference in Key West. “And then when she was five we went to Coorg, to south India.” The resulting book is titled On a Shoestring to Coorg.

She never hired a guide or translator, always desiring to chart her own course. “Once I had a guide imposed upon me in Ethiopia a very long time ago, but I soon got rid of him by moving a bit faster through the mountains,” she said at the conference. “So he fell behind and wasn’t seen again.”

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It was at that conference that I’d first met Dervla, over beers with travel writers, including Tim Cahill, one of the founders of Outside magazine. Dervla had just returned from Cuba for a book that would come out in 2008, titled The Island That Dared. She regaled us with tales of trekking with her daughter and granddaughters and told us we had much to learn from Cuba’s anti-capitalist stance. She harbored no illusions about the restrictiveness and material poverty of Cuba but noted there are many different types of wealth in the world. Among the most important, she said, are education and access to health care. Cuba had succeeded, despite the crushing U.S. embargo, in providing these necessities for its citizens.

Dervla’s journals from her time working in a Tibetan refugee camp became her second book, “Tibetan Foothold.”

Embracing the world

The kindness of strangers is a theme that runs through Dervla’s work. While in Afghanistan during her Full Tilt trip, Dervla stopped to take a midday nap on a mountainside. As she slept, nomads came upon her and, concerned about her getting too much sun, “erected one of their goat-hair tents over me—without loosening a pebble, they move so very stealthily.”

Unlike so many Westerners who traveled to get away from home, Dervla traveled toward the rest of the world. In Full Tilt, she encounters a 25-year-old “American boy” in Kabul, who after two years on the road is “weary of travelling, probably because he always holds himself aloof from the people he travels among—not through hostility or superiority, but through a strange unconsciousness of the unity of mankind.”

This was nearly 60 years ago, yet Dervla’s words remain extraordinarily prescient. She wrote: “Is this something our age does—on the one hand make communication easier than ever before, while on the other hand widening the gulf between those who are ‘developed’ and those who are not?”

The author and his hero

There’s no place like home

Despite her passion for the world, Dervla maintained a deep connection to her birthplace. She returned to Lismore faithfully between travels, purchasing in the late 1970s the “Old Market,” her name for a constellation of stone buildings, the remnants of a 17th-century marketplace that she made into her home.   

When I visited in 2013, she gave me a tour of the Old Market, which she’d transformed into an office, rustic bedrooms, and an expansive library. There was no heating other than a wood stove, but she only fired that up when guests visited because the cold, even in winter, didn’t bother her. There was certainly no television.

She wrote her books longhand then typed up her manuscripts. I noticed her typewriter was covered by a Tibetan flag. She was too modest to mention it, but I learned later the flag had been a gift from the Dalai Lama, perhaps in appreciation for Dervla’s volunteer service to Tibetan refugees in northern India many years before.

As her terrier, Wurzel, sat on her lap, I asked her if there were places she hadn’t visited but wished she had. “I do wish I’d sailed down the Yangtze before they put in the three dams,” she said, then asked where I’d been recently. I told her a magazine had sent me to an ecolodge in Patagonia. “I’d run a mile from that!” she said. “I really would.”

Though travel was the love of her life, Dervla always looked forward to coming home to Lismore. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” she told me. “I do think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I just feel I belong here. There have been so many changes in Ireland for the worse during the past 15 or 20 years. But this little corner of west Waterford is unchanged from the time I first remember it 75 years ago, and I was learning to swim with my grandfather.”

As the light faded and the birds quieted, I headed out toward the heavy iron gates. Just before saying farewell, I asked Dervla about the spire rising in the distance.

“That’s the Catholic church,” Dervla growled. “The other one (Protestant) is over there. As far as I’m concerned you can have them all.”

The legendary Dervla Murphy and her faithful companion, a terrier named Wurzel.

The legacy lives on

Among the many people inspired by Dervla’s travels and writing is San Francisco author Tania Amochaev Romanov. She first read Full Tilt as a young woman, which stoked in her a desire to visit the Himalayas, specifically Gilgit and the Karakoram mountains. “I admired her courage and persistence from the moment I opened her first book,” Romanov said. “I was determined to follow her path.”

Over the years, Romanov, now 72, traveled to Annapurna, Bhutan, Ladakh and many other places. But she hadn’t made it to Gilgit or the Karakoram, and she had never explored northern Pakistan. In early 2022, as travel began to take flight once more, Romanov finally made her plans to go.

She arrived in Lahore in mid-May then headed northeast into the Himalayas. As she approached Gilgit, where her path into the high peaks started, “Dervla’s words filled my head,” she said. “Incredibly, 60 years after her travels, the roads, chiseled into the cliffs, still resemble those she described: narrow and terrifying, with sheer drops.” She recalled that Dervla’s bicycle became the first to cross Babusar Pass, before a paved road existed.

Nearly 60 years later, on May 21, 2022, Romanov crossed Babusar Pass. On May 22—the day Dervla died—Romanov and her group entered Gilgit. “My mind was filled with her tales, as I, too, sat on the side of a peak,” Romanov said. 

The next day, Romanov learned of Dervla’s passing. “I could hardly absorb the news that, while I retraced her steps, Dervla left this world,” she said. After receiving the news, Romanov left her hotel. The ruggedness of steep mountains covered by giant boulders was matched by the beauty of the cloud-filled skies, all reflected in a small lake far below. “I felt deeply in debt to this wonderful adventurer who had inspired my passions and walked out to see the dazzling peaks she had introduced me to, felt a special peace, and thanked her with all my heart.”

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