Dervla hated the limelight, but it’s only fitting we pay tribute

Colette Sheridan recalls a meeting with author Dervla Murphy, who died recently
Dervla hated the limelight, but it’s only fitting we pay tribute

Author Dervla Murphy at her home in Lismore, Co, Waterford. Picture: Denis Scannell

WHEN I asked the intrepid travel writer, Dervla Murphy, how she would like to be remembered, she said: “I don’t expect to be remembered. There’s no reason why people can’t do what I did. What’s stopping them?”

But Dervla, who died last week at the age of 90, made her mark and her passing has triggered an outpouring of tributes and articles, chronicling the adventurous and courageous life of this hardy woman who, as a girl of ten, had an ambition to cycle to India.

That dream was triggered by a birthday gift of a second hand bicycle and an atlas.

At the age of 32, Dervla was finally free to realise her crazy dream, having left school at 14 to care for her disabled mother.

The wife of poet John Betjeman spotted Dervla cycling in Delhi and was fascinated by her story. Penelope Betjeman introduced her to the UK publishing firm, John Murray. The result was Dervla’s first book, Full Tilt: Ireland To India With A bicycle.

It was an auspicious start as a writer, the first of 26 books that Dervla had published.

I was sent by the Irish Examiner to interview Dervla back in 2011 when she had turned 80 and her publishers, Eland, had just reprinted a number of her books.

The first hurdle was trying to make the initial contact with the reclusive Lismore-based writer. The other day, I read that Dervla only took phone calls between 5am-5.15am! Phone chatter would have been anathema to this purposeful woman for whom travel and writing were her raison d’etre.

Fortunately, she replied to my email fairly quickly and we made a date. At the appointed time, I turned up at the high wrought iron gate, which was locked with a thick chain. Dervla turned up, unlocked the gate and led me down a cobble-stoned avenue with her three dogs at her side.

Her eccentric dwelling, a 17th century former cattle market, was actually a number of separate buildings set in a kind of courtyard. There was no heating and no television set in the living room area.

“I wouldn’t have one in the house,” she said. She shunned mod cons, hated consumerism and was staunchly anti-capitalist.

Her hospitality extended to offering me a beer, mid afternoon. I demurred, having foresworn drink. Had I still been drinking, I’d have liked a session with Dervla. Beer was part of her Spartan diet.

Rising before cock crow, she would have a hearty breakfast; homemade muesli, bread, cheese and eggs. I don’t think she bothered with lunch apart from a can or two of beer. Dinner was unnecessary, no doubt getting in the way of reading and writing. She would be in bed by 9pm.

Needless to say, Dervla didn’t own a mobile phone. I recall her addressing pupils of Colaiste Choilm in Ballincollig four years ago when she was invited there by teacher, Padraigín O’Donoghue.

Dervla said that when young people, travelling, pitch up in hostels, they immediately take out their phones. Instead of talking to each other and sharing intel, they seek information from their phones.

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

Dervla had succumbed to owning a computer to enable her to look up Haaretz, the English language newspaper that reports on the Middle East. But she generally only went online for a brief period starting at 5am.

However, that didn’t stop her being engaged with the world, or at least the aspects of the world that interested her.

She wasn’t in thrall to fashion or trends. Instead, she sought out what was important and wrote about it in her clear and unadorned style. 

She lived among Palestinians on the West Bank during Israel’s 22-day attack on the Gaza strip in 2008-2009.

“How many 80-year-olds do you know who would happily spend three months in a refugee camp, living in a single concrete room with a hole in one corner as a loo?” wrote her editor, Rose Baring.

“For her, understanding the experience of the Palestinians in Balata Camp was her duty as a fellow human.”

Dervla, a single mother of one, hated the limelight. When a documentary on her life was screened on TG4, she purposely didn’t watch it. She didn’t think she was shy “in the sense of ordinary situations, but I can be when I have to occasionally appear in public at literary festivals which I hate. I love my own company, which is very convenient for a writer.”

With no time for labels like left wing, Dervla told me that the world is in too serious a state “to be playing around with those almost 19th century terms.

“I mean, do we care about the planet or don’t we?”

Dervla cared. RIP.

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