Life’s journey has brought me from Lourdes to naughty Soho

John Arnold reflects on the modern joys of travelling as he pays a visit to the graveside of Dervla Murphy
Life’s journey has brought me from Lourdes to naughty Soho

WORLD OF WONDERS: Dervla Murphy was well known for her travels. John Arnold visited her grave in Lismore this week

I SUPPOSE it’s because we speak English in the manner our ancestors spoke Irish as their native language long ago. To the question ‘Where’s your father?’ might often come the reply ‘He’s abroad in the field’ - ‘Ta se thar lear sa phairc’.

Everything is relative of course and it’s the same with travelling.

When we use the term ‘abroad’ nowadays, it has connotations of going to far-flung places, across land and oceans.

Having come out of a Covid-imposed ban on nearly all international travel, the skies and seas are now opening up for business once more.

Long ago, ‘going abroad the field’ meant just that, going to a different place. Shure, it might only be 200 yards or up the boreen or down the glen, but it was moving somewhere else.

I suppose for younger generations foreign travel - across the world - is nothing new, they take long haul plane flights in their stride. Maybe with so much talk about carbon miles and environmental concerns, travelling will be somewhat curtailed - but I doubt it.

Travelling here, there and yon is part and parcel of modern lifestyles but it is a fairly modern phenomenon. 

Paddy Geary, who worked with us for over 30 years, was never in Dublin. He died in 1985 at the age of 79, he was in Cork a few times and used go, on August 15 every year to the Regatta in Cobh, but he never ventured as far as Dublin.

When asked, he replied: ‘What would I want to go to Dublin for?’

Growing up in the 1960s, our idea of travelling was going ‘abroad to Youghal of a Sunday’, watching the crowds off the trains and buying boiling water for the ‘tay’ from a lady near Claycastle.

Going to the Munster Final away up in Thurles 50 years ago was a major adventure. The game against Clare might have been at 3.30 but we were on the road after 9.30 Mass in Bartlemy. Then, that September, going to Dublin with a few local lads for the All Ireland Final - the GAA was sensible then with finals in September. We went up on the train and stayed in a house in Ballsbridge. The five of us had a shower in the B&B that night, a new experience for country boys. The landlady’s teenage daughter got a quare fright as the five of us emerged from the bathroom wearing nothing only smiles and the one towel between the five of us!

My first time really travelling, well abroad from home - out of the country - came in the mid 1970s when a group of us went over by boat to the Smithfield Show in London. 

It was a Macra na Feirme crowd and the first night there we went down Soho. Most of us had heard of the ‘Red Light District’ but had not seen it. There’s strength in numbers so a dozen of us traversed this busy part of ‘late nite’ life in London town.

Girls of every hue and demeanour smiled and winked and beckoned us in. Thy were all behind glass windows as they plied their trade. It was just as well ’cause if they were out on the street with their skimpy clothes, they’d catch double pneumonia - it was the month of December!

In 1981, we honeymooned in Fuengirola in Spain and we’ve been back there twice since.

To mark a half century of existence, I went to Lourdes in 2007 (please God, I’ll return there next week) and since then I’ve been to Lourdes 25 times.

Then, 2008 saw me venture far away to Ethiopia, a country I yearn to go back to some time.

All this travelling, you’d say, should have broadened my mind, but I’m not certain of that! One thing I know is that the best ever travel writer was Dervla Murphy, who died in Lismore last week.

On Sunday evening I stood by her grave in the beautiful cemetery in her native town. 

All the graves in Sections A, B and C are already used so, fittingly, it’s in grave number 01 in Section D that Dervla lies.

I read her life story (at the time) in Wheels Within Wheels and was fascinated by her bravery and determination. To travel the world by bicycle and then take little Rachel, her daughter, with her was the stuff of dreams.

Murphy might have been a dreamer, but she fulfilled those dreams in a wonderful life.

I have often written about places I’ve been to and it’s simple to describe the physical features of places visited. Dervla’s gift was that she was able to soak up the atmosphere, the lifestyle of the local populace, and understand their culture, warts and all.

She reminded me of aviator Daphne Pouchin Mould, another woman who went ‘where no woman had gone before’.

Dervla was not religious but, by heaven or hell, she was a true spiritual being. She loved nature and long before caring for the environment or even worrying about its destruction became popular, Dervla Murphy understood the way humanity and the natural world must coexist.

She was irreverent in the best sense of that word, but she was never irrelevant. 

She didn’t suffer fools gladly and was such a brilliant thinker. She didn’t give a damn what others thought about her - life is too short for such frivolities.

I never met her, but loved listening to her unique voice, especially on radio. She lived a simple and understated life in the place she loved best.

There’s a beautiful old song made famous by Ruby Murray called Doonaree and two lines therein summarised Dervla’s attitude to travel:

To go back home, never more to roam,

Is my dearest wish of all

In the setting sunshine last Sunday, my mind’s eye travelled to Peru, India, China, and nearer to home, North to Ulster - places she went to and encapsulated in her own words the true meaning of life, love, hate, war and peace.

On her grave was a simple bunch of flowers and an empty beer can - she would have smiled wryly at that!

Since her death at the age of 90, Dervla Murphy has been described in obituaries and articles globally as a woman before her time, but her time was her whole life and she certainly packed in a lot to those nine decades.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a lovely poem. Requiem, I’m sure he would forgive me for paraphrasing it a little in tribute to a remarkable woman;

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie

Glad did I live and gladly die

And I laid me down with a will

This be the verse you grave for me

Here she lies where she longed to be

Home is the sailor, home from the sea

And the hunter home from the hill

Her bike will travel the world no more

Home forever in her own place, Lismore.

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