Monday, August 01, 2011

Dervla Murphy, Our Greatest Traveller - Magan's World, Oct 2008

Sat 10 Oct 2008 Our greatest traveller

MAGAN'S WORLD:Is it okay to have a crush on a 76-year-old? Because I had a serious one on Dervla Murphy, Ireland's most extraordinary and intrepid voyager since Saint Brendan, writes Manchán Magan

I dreamed about her for many years. I tried not to, but I couldn't help myself. She's come riding across the bleak Afghan wasteland towards me on her trusty old bike, or on a mule over the Andes. I wanted to think of something devastatingly clever to top say that would make her dismount and join me over by the campfire, so that we could talk and share ideas all night.

In the Ireland that I grew up in Dervla was the lode star for anyone dreaming of exploring the world. She made is seem so easy. For her tenth birthday she received an atlas and a bicycle and decided to cycle to India. The trip had to wait 22 years, but when she finally made it she wrote a fantastic account, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, (1963). Every year after that she’d make another journey and write another book - In Ethiopia with a Mule, On a Shoestring through Coorg, Where the Indus is Young.

I had heard it was next to impossible to get to see her; either she was off wandering far away or else holed up in her medieval market compound in the heart of Lismore writing the next book. Yet, through a wonderful stroke of fortune I managed to arrange a meeting last summer. I was terribly excited, especially about getting to see her home which is like a caravanserai you might find along the Spice Route – although I regretted having to bring a radio producer and researcher along to record our interview as it somewhat compromised the intimacy. I wanted to gush about the effect that reading her books had on me at age 16 and how I had devoured all of them, especially the ones with her daughter, Rachel. I felt I sort of knew them both at this stage, having followed Rachel from her first trip to Southern India at age six, right up to the madcap journey through the Andes with a mule when she was 15. I was amazed to hear that Rachel is now married with children of her own, and, of course, is still travelling. Occasionally the three generations, set off together; last year they went to Cuba to research Dervla’s latest book.

The visit passed all too quickly and before I knew it I was back on the road again driving over the Knockmealdowns, purring at the memory of Dervla’s humility and hospitality, and the wonderful earthy soup she made us with vegetables from her own garden. It was only later that night as I was listening back to the tape that I finally began to take onboard what she had been trying to tell me all afternoon. She wanted us to know that as far as she could see it the world was going steadily downhill. ‘As long as this corporate capitalism prevails there is very little to celebrate in the world,’ she said. ‘It’s very sad.’

This wasn’t something I wanted to hear from Ireland’s greatest adventurer. Instead, I was hoping to hear her waxing about the multitudinous expressions of humanity she had encountered and the awe-inspiring realms that are described so evocatively in her books. I tried, with the crassest of interviewing techniques, to steer her away from her gloom, but after a lifetime dealing with cantankerous militias and tribesmen she wasn’t going to be put off by the likes of me. The truth was that a lifetime of travel had left her feeling more alienated than ever. ‘I am getting more and more pessimistic,’ she said. ‘. . . (I have) deep, deep concern; great anxiety that the young wont be allowed to see what is happening.’