Wheels Within Wheels

Dervla Murphy


Wheels Within Wheels

Dervla Murphy


What is it that makes us who we are? In this beautifully written and searingly honest autobiography, the intrepid cyclist and traveller Dervla Murphy remembers her richly unconventional first thirty years. She describes her determined childhood self – strong-willed and beguiled by books from the first – her intermittent formal education and the intense relationship of an only child with her parents, particularly her invalid mother whom she nursed until her death.

Here lie the roots of Dervla’s gift for friendship, her love of writing, her curiosity, her hatred of cant, her hardiness and her desire to travel. Bicycling fifty miles in a day at the age of eleven, alone, it seems only natural that her first major journey should have been to cycle to India.

‘An extraordinary book, reflecting an extraordinary woman and one of the great travellers of our time.’ - William Trevor, The Times
‘A giant of travel writing.’ - Matthew Parris, BBC Radio 4
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Wheels Within Wheels: The Making of a Traveller
ISBN 978-1906011-40-6
Format: 283pp demi pb
Place: Ireland, Autobiography


Extract from Chapter One

At 7.45 on the morning of November 28, 1931, a young woman in the first stage of labour was handed by her husband into Lismore’s only hackney-car. The couple were slowly driven east to Cappoquin along a narrow road, in those days potholed and muddy. It was a mild, still, moist morning. During the journey a pale dawn spread over the Black- water valley, a place as lovely in winter as in summer – a good place to be born.

The woman had waist-length chestnut hair, wavy, glossy and thick. Her features were classically regular, her wide-set eyes dark blue, her complexion had never known – or needed – cosmetics. She had an athletic build, with shoulders too broad for feminine grace. On the previous day, impatient because the baby was a week late, she had walked fifteen miles.

At five foot six the husband was no taller than the wife. ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ his mother had observed objectively when the engagement was announced. But this was unfair. He was well proportioned and muscular, with thick black hair, dark brown eyes, a straight nose, an olive complexion – not handsome, yet striking enough in a quiet way. He was earnest though not humourless and firm in his convictions to the edge of intolerance. His manner was difficult and as an essentially lonely introvert he found it easier to listen than to talk. Even at the door of the maternity home he had no ready words of encouragement for his wife. ‘I’ll pray for you,’ he assured her solemnly. Then he retreated into the hackney and asked the driver to drop him off at the County Library headquarters in Lismore. It was a Saturday and if he started work at nine o’clock instead of ten he could, with a clear conscience, knock off at twelve instead of one. Characteristically, he did not consider granting himself any compassionate leave in honour of the occasion.

This was before the Universal Telephone era and at 12.30 Dr White appeared at the library door. An archetypal GP – florid, white-haired, stately, kind – he was accustomed to dealing with son-hungry farmers. ‘Well now,’ he growled, ‘I don’t know if I should congratulate you or not.’ (My father at once visualised some ghastly deformity.) ‘It’s a daughter you have. Came at a quarter to twelve. Strong child.’ (This was also before the days of universal weighing; babies were either strong or weak.)

My father’s reply is not recorded. But as he and my mother had been referring to me as ‘Dervla’ for the past eight months he perhaps felt no great disappointment. At once he set out to walk the four miles to Cappoquin, carrying a bulky parcel which a more practical man would have put in the hackney-car that morning. It contained the nine records of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. By the time we met I had suffered my first misadventure, a badly burned bottom caused by a burst hot-water bottle. (For more than thirty years the scar faithfully registered severe frosts.)

As a child, it delighted me to hear my mother describing the celebrations that followed. When a gramophone had been borrowed she and my father settled down to hold hands in the firelit dusk while Beethoven expressed their feelings about parenthood and I, in a cradle beside them, expressed mine about burnt bottoms. At that time child- birth was considered an illness and occasionally a nurse would look in and remark ineffectually that my mother was a patient and should be resting . Then Dr White himself arrived to end this unseemly gaiety. I had been lulled to sleep: but the moment Beethoven stopped I started. So the Murphys won that round, when my mother indicated that she found the ‘Ode to Joy’ a lot more restful than a howling infant.

Two days later I was christened in Cappoquin’s parish church. At first the priest refused to baptise me, insisting peevishly that ‘Dervla’ was a pagan name and must be changed to something respectably Catholic like Mary or Brigid. My father, however, would not give in. He recalled that a sixth-century St Dervla was reputed to have lived in Co Wexford and that from Ireland the name had spread throughout Europe. Then he carefully explained, to an increasingly impatient curate, that Dearbhail meant True Desire in Gaelic and that the English, French and Latin versions were Dervla, Derval and Dervilla. Finally they compromised; my birth certificate names me as Dervilla Maria.

Although my mother’s recovery was rapid we were not allowed home until December 12. Then my first journey took me through countryside that had scarcely changed since Thackeray described it in 1842: ‘Beyond Cappoquin, the beautiful Blackwater river suddenly opened before us, and driving along it for three miles through some of the most beautiful rich country ever seen, we came to Lismore. Nothing certainly can be more magnificent than this drive. Parks and rocks covered with the grandest foliage; rich handsome seats of gentlemen in the midst of fair lawns and beautiful bright plantations and shrubberies; and at the end, the graceful spire of Lismore church, the prettiest I have seen in or, I think, out of Ireland. Nor in any country that I have visited have I seen a view more noble – it is too rich and peaceful to be what is called romantic, but lofty, large and generous , if the term may be used; the river and banks as fine as the Rhine; the castle not as large but as noble and picturesque as Warwick. As you pass the bridge, the banks stretch away on either side in amazing verdure, and the castle walks remind one somewhat of the dear old terrace of St Germains, with its groves, and long, grave avenues of trees.’

From that bridge it was about a quarter of a mile to my first home on the eastern edge of Lismore. There my parents had rented half a decaying mini-mansion. The other half was occupied by the owner, an obese, elderly, gossipy widow who always smelt of camphorated oil. Her habit of glancing through opened letters, and asking our maid what the Murphys were having for dinner, did not endear her to my mother. At this stage my parents were of enormous interest to the townspeople. And their odd status within the community was greatly to influence my childhood.

Forty years ago the Pale was still a psychological reality and my parents therefore ranked as ‘foreigners’ in Co Waterford. As far back as the genealogical eye could see both their families were of the Dublin bourgeoisie, only rarely diluted by Huguenot, Scots Presbyterian and Italian-Jewish blood. Among their forbears were printers, ironmongers, doctors, linen weavers, civil servants, cabinet-makers, architects, silk- merchants, musicians, soldiers and sailors. There were no priests or nuns on either side that I ever heard of – unusual in Irish families – and the only known deviations from the bourgeoisie were an eighteenth- century Earl (of Belvedere) and a nineteenth-century kitchenmaid (of Rathmines).

Inevitably, then, my parents were without any ready-made social niche when they migrated south. On one side of a deep rural divide were the gentry and aristocracy, mainly Anglo-Irish and Protestant, and on the other were the farmers and tradesmen, mainly native Irish and Catholic. No true middle class had yet evolved – we missed out on the Industrial Revolution – and professional men were usually the sons either of impoverished gentry or of prosperous farmers. Such people tended to retain their inherited attitudes and interests which, on most points, did not coincide with the attitudes and interests of the young couple from Dublin.

When my parents arrived in Lismore on their wedding day – being too poor to afford even a weekend honeymoon – they found a build-up of suspicions resentment. The previous county librarian had been a popular local figure since the 1870s. He had recently reluctantly retired, leaving nine books fit to be circulated, and the townspeople were furious when an aloof young Dubliner was appointed to replace their beloved Mr Mills. A secure job with a salary of £250 a year had slipped from the grasp of some deserving local and they smelt political corruption. It mattered not to them that no local was qualified for the job, and what little they knew of my father they disliked. His family was conspicuously Republican – a black mark, not long after the Civil War, in a pre- dominantly Redmondite town.

During that summer my parents often travelled together around the county setting up embryonic branch libraries in villages and rural schools. Sometimes they slept in the back of the small library motor-van to economise on petrol – thus saving money for the purchase of extra books – and twice the van was stoned after dark by hostile natives. No doubt wisely, my parents chose to ignore these demonstrations.