Lives Remembered

Dervla Murphy: 'Ireland's most famous travel writer'

Dervla Murphy has died aged 90. Picture from RTÉ

COVID and all that, so we used to ring each other every so often.

I knew her physical strength was not what it had been... so on this occasion, just a couple of months ago, I rang at about six in the evening.

“Dervla?”

“Oh hang on a moment...” and she put the phone down. Oh dear, l thought, perhaps this time was not the best. A minute passed. More.

“OK, I’ve got myself a beer; what’s your news?”

This was Dervla, alert and bright, right to the end.

Described by President Michael D Higgins as 'Ireland's most famous travel writer', we met for the first time in 1986.

Having cycled to India and crossed the Andes and more, she decided to pay her first visit to that strange part of her own island – the north – for A Place Apart, one of 26 books she wrote during a lifetime of adventure.

And needless to say, to research this odd corner, she wanted to include a Twelfth.

As it happened, l was working in Cairn Lodge Youth Club at the time, and one of the lodges used to meet there, early, before heading off with a bang o’ the drums to Belfast's Shaftesbury Square.

“Could my friend Dervla Murphy come and join you for the day?” I asked the master of the lodge, a temperance lodge to boot.

“Sure, no problem.”

“She’s from the Republic.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

So down she went, 7.30am, with her famous brogue, a southerner beyond disguise.

“Hello,” she said, on entering the hall.

“Ah, Dervla,” (temperance yes, but) “would you like a wee half’un?”

She was, in her own words, ‘a tough old boot’. She travelled light, bemoaning the excesses of the world’s worst minority, the rich, and always conversing with the simple folk.

Admittedly, her mechanical abilities were few, if and when the bicycle had a problem. But, as the travellers’ old saying goes, ‘you only ever hear successful stories’, and Dervla always succeeded.

I have but one regret. Before setting off for the Balkans, she asked if I had any advice.

‘But how could I have anything to say to one so experienced?’ I thought. So it did not occur to me to tell her of Bosnia’s horrible tunnels, some of them miles long, all without lights because of the war.

And she had the dreadful experience of being inside, in the pitch-black silence, when all was interrupted by the thunderous echoes of a deafening lorry, its lights blinding, its fumes choking, its driver totally unaware of a lone cyclist cowering against the side wall.

And I have one hope. Dervla was always so full of encouragement, and for me anyway, she had one more wish for one of her own great loves: “Yes,” she said, “go and cycle across Tibet.”

Dervla Murphy, from Lismore, Co Waterford, died aged 90 on May 22. She is survived by her daughter Rachel and grandchildren.

Peter Emerson

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