Dervla Murphy was born on 28 November 1931 of parents whose families were both settled in Dublin as far back as can be traced. Her grandfather and most of his family were involved in the Irish Republican movement. Her father was appointed Waterford County Librarian in 1930 after three years internment in Wormwood Scrubs prison and seven years at the Sorbonne. Her mother was invalided by arthritis when Dervla was one year old. She was educated at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford until she was fourteen, when, because of the wartime shortage of servants, she left to keep house for her father and to nurse her mother. Dervla did this for sixteen years with occasional breaks bicycling on the Continent. Her mother’s death left her free to go farther afield and in 1963 she cycled to India. There she worked with Tibetan refugee children before returning home after a year to write her first two books.
Dervla Murphy’s first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, was published in 1965. Over 20 other titles have followed. Dervla has won worldwide praise for her writing and has been described as a ‘travel legend’ and ‘the first lady of Irish cycling’. Now in her 80s, she continues to travel around the world and remains passionate about politics, conservation, bicycling and beer. Dervla is now published by Eland.
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"Weeds," says Dervla Murphy in her deep, melodious voice, in what sounds like a mixture of mild irritation but also delight at the carpet of forget-me-nots covering the courtyard of the Old Market. This collection of stone buildings hidden away behind iron gates up a cobbled laneway in Lismore, County Waterford, is the home of the legendary Irish travel writer.
If you're fearless, you have nothing to overcome . . .
Dervla Murphy discusses her career writing about travel
In 1977, in her astonishing account of a winter spent with her six year old daughter in the sub-zero Indus Valley in Baltistan, Dervla Murphy declared that she had ‘no head for politics’. In ‘A Month By the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’, her no less astonishing new book, it is abundantly clear that much has changed on that front in the ensuing 35 years, and readers of Dervla’s recent books may rather suspect that her claim made in Baltistan may well have been a case of modesty over accuracy.
Sue Lawley's castaway is cyclist and writer Dervla Murphy.
On a cold grey day at the end of March 1964, shortly after my return from India, I first met a Tibetan in Western surroundings – the foyer of a central London hotel. I had been working for some months in Dharamsala, then an overcrowded and under-funded refugee camp for Tibetan children, and that moving encounter with the Tibetan way of being made me feel slightly apprehensive about Lobsang. How would this young man, only five years out of Tibet and three months out of India, be reacting to our Western ways?
Dervla Murphy interview in The Independent
My daily routine starts at five. I have a big breakfast and, depending on the season, I take the dogs out. In the summer I swim in the river. I spend the day writing. I go to bed early, about 9.30pm or so. I don’t pace myself to have a set word count. When I’m between books, I love to have friends to stay in my home. That, for me, is a holiday . . .
I vividly remember my first meeting with Dervla Murphy in 1979. Husband George and I had just arrived at a hostal in Otavalo, Ecuador, while researching our guide to Backpacking in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. I emerged from our room to find George chatting to a tough-looking woman with an Irish accent. She was telling him where to buy good yoghurt . . .
If I am to be remembered, I’d like to be remembered as someone who was interested in the ordinary people of whatever country I was in . . .
Dervla Murphy rarely gives interviews. She is one of our most senior and prolific travel writers – more than 20 books in a half-a-century career – but she is extremely publicity-shy, from an age before blog and spin were part of a writer’s toolkit. She’s not a J D Salinger – there’s the odd public sighting or visit to an Irish bar – but this was her first interview for many years . . .
Caroline Brennan talks to Dervla
'Murphy is adept at getting under the skin of a nation, rarely happier than when eating local food and drinking beer in the kitchens of the people she meets en route. She is honest and determined, but never sentimental about the sometimes desperate situations she experiences and the lives she touches.'
At 10 years old, Dervla Muphy planned her first major odyssey: a cycling trip to India. Now 78, the seasoned travel writer still drinks beer from a tin, has been known to run naked around her garden, and hasn’t given up travelling – even when she’s at home in Waterford . . .
Many people have stayed with Dervla, or been host to her, during the 48 years that she’s been a writer, and any who visited her during the winter will remember the challenge of keeping warm (“I wonder if it would be possible to have a bath?” I asked on my first visit. “The river’s down there” she responded. It was while bathing in the same river some years later that a frisky bull charged her and broke some ribs – or possibly her back, I can’t now remember) . . .