Real lessons in life from a very brave pioneering travel writer

Real lessons in life from a very brave pioneering travel writer
Author Dervla Murphy at her home in Lismore, Co, Waterford. Picture: Denis Scannell

WHILE two big male media cheeses (John Waters and Eamon Dunphy) were deciding what women should or should not do with their bodies, I was taking a breather from the referendum debate, listening to arguably one of Ireland’s greatest women, talking about her career as a travel writer, to an enraptured group of secondary school students.

The occasion was Dervla Murphy’s visit to Colaiste Choilm in Ballincollig, organised by teacher, Pádraigín O’Donoghue, who enticed the somewhat reclusive 86-year old author of 26 books, out of her Lismore home to engage with young minds.

Dervla, a little stooped and no longer able to cycle around the world because of a heart condition and other ailments of old age, would probably cringe at the suggestion that she is up there with the likes of Mary Robinson as one the country’s pioneering heroines.

She hates the limelight but is much-loved by the initiated — people who have read her books about everywhere from India to Siberia.

As for the teenagers firing questions at Murphy, they were fascinated. We’re always told that the young ones don’t read books anymore, that they’re always switched onto social media, scrolling through their smart phones, heads down, the real world a mere backdrop to posting selfies. But judging by the Colaiste Choilm teenagers’ responses to Dervla, they could well be interested in reading her books.

Travel is always interesting but particularly so when the traveller engages with the locals and is given an insight into their lives and beliefs. Perhaps travel literature should be introduced to the secondary school curriculum? After all, many school kids cite ‘travelling’ as one of their aspirations.

But Dervla sounded a note of caution. She has noticed that when young people, travelling the world, pitch up in hostels, they immediately take out their phones. Instead of conversing with each other and sharing intel, they seek information and updates from their anti-social instruments.

“Leave behind your smart phone,” she advised “and everything that comes between you and the country you’re visiting.”

That’s a big ask for those of us who are almost surgically attached to our phones, afflicted with FOMO (fear of missing out), but it’s all part of Dervla’s frugal approach to living. She hates consumer culture which goads everyone, particularly young people, to keep on buying stuff that they’ve been fooled into believing they need. She has said her philosophy on life is informed by Buddhism. That school of thought is all about being detached and devoid of desire.

Dervla’s modest ways are reflected in her diet. Rising before cockcrow, she has a good breakfast; homemade muesli, bread, cheese and eggs. She enjoys a beer or two during the day and goes to bed at 9pm. She does not graze on calorific food, instead getting by on wholesome food at the start of her day.

She doesn’t own a mobile phone and refuses to have a television set in her house. Instead, she reads avidly and no doubt, is still writing. She comes across as engaged with the world, or at least, those parts of it that interest her.

In a world full of paranoia and distrust of others, as well as stringent health and safety regulations dictating what we can and can’t do, many of us are blinkered in our atomised existences.

Instead of being adventurous, we’re fearful. Children don’t walk to school anymore. They’re ferried everywhere in fuel-guzzling cars. We fret a lot. Dervla doesn’t seem to have the fretting gene. She says she trusts humanity, for the most part. Once, on her travels in Ethiopia, she was accosted by bandits. She understood that they were discussing whether they’d kill her. Her immediate thought was that, in her mid-thirties, she had had a good life. Imagine feeling gratitude when your life is threatened? The bandits, having robbed her, decided not to end her life.

How did she manage without her passport and essential accoutrements, one of the students asked her. “I just plodded on,” she said. She clearly doesn’t believe in sweating the small stuff.

Being a woman on her solitary travels was more of an advantage than anything else. She explained that in remote places (the kind of off-the-tourist-trail destinations she always favoured), the lone man is often a source of suspicion.

Listening to Dervla was like being privy to a world full of possibilities. To the delight of the students, she said she was very happy to pack in school at 14, to look after her invalid mother. She never sat an exam in her life but continued her education by herself, focusing on English and history. She had a yearning to travel and to write. Clearly, following her dream worked out for this intrepid, fearless woman of substance. There’s a lesson there for today’s school leavers.

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