Widely recognized as Ireland’s premier female travel writer, Dervla Murphy took her fair share of risks throughout a career that spanned seven decades and took her to thirty countries. Her adventures include fighting off a pack of wolves in Bulgaria and narrowly escaping with her life after robbery in Ethiopia, not to mention surviving tick bite fever in South Africa, a triple tooth abscess in Cameroon, gout in Madagascar, and dysentery in Pakistan.
Arguably, however, her biggest risk was defying heteronormative cultural narratives around women’s duties by leaving her own wheelchair-bound mother to go traveling and, when she became a mother herself, taking her young daughter on the road.
Murphy’s parents moved from Dublin to Lismore, West Waterford, when her father, Furgus, became the county’s librarian. Soon after Murphy was born in 1931, her mother, Kathleen, contracted a rare rheumatoid arthritis that left her in significant pain and unable to stand. By the time Murphy was fourteen years old, she had been withdrawn from convent school to act as nurse and see to the damp, dilapidated family home.
Although they were close—it was Kathleen who gave ten-year-old Murphy the atlas and bicycle that inspired her first long trip and subsequent book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle—the hours spent inside weighed heavily on the adventure-loving teenager. Kathleen encouraged her daughter to take month-long cycling trips on continental Europe, which resulted in a series of articles in the Irish Independent and Hibernia magazine.
However, after a bout of kidney infection, Kathleen’s mental health declined, and she became increasingly tyrannical. When she insisted Murphy share her bedroom so she could call on her throughout the night, the loss of cycling and reading time drove Murphy to the brink of insanity.
Murphy’s daringly unguarded autobiography, Wheels within Wheels, recalls the difficult period in her twenties when she was drinking heavily, chain smoking, and, on her darkest days, thinking of ending her mother’s life. When Kathleen died in 1962, Murphy leapt on her bicycle and peddled for India through Europe, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, and over the Himalayas to Pakistan.
Given that she had just survived fifteen years of feeling trapped by domesticity, perhaps it’s little wonder marriage held so little appeal. In an interview with the Irish Independent, Murphy is quoted as saying she’d known for most of her life that the institution wasn’t for her.
“Ever since I was a child,” she told the interviewer, “I knew that I would write and that I would never marry. I had that fixed in my mind. I’m just a solitary creature. I can’t imagine sharing daily life with a man, no matter how much I loved him.”
Interestingly, though, she did want to be a mother, an unusual outlook in Catholic Ireland, where unmarried women were often shunned in the 1960s. When she was thirty-seven, she had a daughter, Rachel, with Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of the Irish Times and who already had a wife and children living in Dublin.
Murphy took five years off the travels before heading to Baltistan, a remote region in the swirling peaks of the Himalayas, taking her daughter with her. There she hired a pony, her one concession to Rachel’s youth, and wandered the knife-edge valleys of the Indus River in perishing conditions, “existing on unmentionable things cooked in rancid fat, a few apricot kernels and little else.” When they removed their clothes for the first time in three months, they were crawling with lice.
The determined mother-daughter duo went on to visit Nepal, India, Peru, Madagascar, and Cameroon on the usual shoestring, and in 2005, Rachel’s three young daughters, Rose, Clodagh, and Zea, were treated to similar experiences in Cuba. In The Island That Dared, Murphy’s book about that trip, she writes of days without food and nights spent sleeping on the beach.
For someone with such itchy feet, Murphy’s instinct for home was as strong as a pigeon’s. She lived in Lismore with her pets, swimming in the River Blackwater and writing from 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m, until she died aged ninety. She ate just one huge meal per day before sunrise, “to save time.”
Despite the fact she coolly rattled the cages of religious, matrimonial, gender, and mother- (and indeed grandmother-) hood norms, she met with very little opposition—at least according to her.
“Let’s say an animal breaks a leg,” she proposes.
If it seems worried about that, the rest of the herd will turn on it, but if it picks itself up and staggers on, on its own, it won’t be turned on. […] I genuinely didn’t give a damn what anybody thought and that was my protection.
We can only imagine how much more brilliant travel writing might exist if more mothers felt as free.