Monday, August 01, 2011

Dervla Murphy column 3 - Who is Dervla Murphy? Jan 2011

The Irish Times - Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our world wanderer's tales of a travel addict

MAGAN'S WORLD: IF YOU MISSED Who is Dervla Murphy? on TG4 last Sunday, let it be a lesson to you to watch more TG4; not to be one of the many who praise the channel for its innovation, but rarely watch it.

Each time I mention Dervla Murphy I feel the need to re- introduce her, although it’s unimaginable to me how anyone could not be familiar with Ireland’s greatest travelling icon, our courageous, eloquent world wanderer, whose seminal works of travel literature over five decades and four continents count as one of Ireland’s great literary achievements.

For anyone stymied by the claustrophobia of Ireland in the 1960s to early 1990s Murphy was our lodestar. Her character is exemplified by her description of the thought process that set in train her first Herculean journey from Lismore, Co Waterford, across Iran and Afghanistan to India in 1963: “I was looking down at my legs thinking if you did this for long enough you could get to India.”

Such simple determination has been at the core of her travel writing ever since. Her books about journeys through India, Africa, South America, the Balkans, Siberia, Cuba and Eastern Europe shine with ruthless honesty, charm and razor-sharp perception – attributes that the Who is Dervla Murphy? documentary fortunately shared. The documentary maker, Garret Daly, spent three years getting to know Murphy and her daughter Rachel, and as a result we get an insight into the make-up of one of Ireland’s most remarkable figures. A woman who savours, as she says about Ethiopia in In Ethiopia With A Mule , “this Neolithic world where money is unimportant and all the objects in daily use have been made of mud, wood, stone, hides or horn”.

In a series of interviews, Murphy talks about the years before travelling, spent caring for her mother, which she survived by “living on whiskey and nicotine”, and explains how it was her mother “who first suggested that I travel on my bike. She thought it would be substitute for education that I missed because I had left school at 14 to look after her.”

Murphy’s candidness is shared by her daughter Rachel, who readers would know from their travels together in On a Shoestring to Coorg: An Experience of Southern India, Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule in Unknown Peru and Cameroon With Egbert .

Discussing her mother’s decision to give birth to her out of marriage in 1968, Rachel says: “It’s not something I forgive my mother easily for. I think it was outrageous to have a child in those circumstances.” And yet a few harrowing moments of tape later, as 40 years of hurt and confusion pass across her face, she adds: “I mean, actually this time I should try and talk to her a bit about it, because I am actually ready to forgive her, in fact.” In that single sentence, Rachel manages to vocalise the inner thoughts of every thirty- something and fortysomething in the developed world with the same clarity as her mother sums up entire countries in the pages of her books.

Ireland is fortunate to have had Dervla Murphy as our peripatetic representative amongst the furthest reaches of the world for half a century, and to have had her books to explain those far flung lands to us. For many, she was the introduction to India, to Ethiopia, to Peru, and as her 80th birthday approaches in November of this year, it’s time we made our gratitude felt. Watch out for the documentary during the year. Meantime, her latest book, The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba (Eland) , is a captivating work based on her travels with Rachel and her grandchildren.