lives in the centre of the town, yet the calm and the view from the
courtyard was pure country. Many years ago, she bought the complex in
Lismore's old Market Square from an English artist and renovated it
with the help of local builders. It is unpretentious, individualistic
and sensitively done. It is what you would expect from the 71-year-old
who, when we met, was preparing to pack (lightly as is her wont) and
set off on two wheels to a far-flung corner of Russia which has few
proper roads, no hotels and no tourists.
She had made soup, she
says, but first things first: would I like some cider and did I know
anyone who could give a kitten a home? Yes and no. The kittens were
part of a litter, the remainder of which are with her daughter Rachel.
was six when she accompanied her mother on a trip into the Karakoram
mountains in the frozen heart of the western Himalayas. She now lives
with her partner and three children in Clare.
is an extremely proud grandmother. When abroad and confronted with
shyness and language barriers, one of her most common ice-breaking
tactics is to show people photographs of Zea, Clodagh and Rose -- aged
two, four and six, respectively.
She raised Rachel alone, a brave
choice in 1960s Ireland. But she always knew her own mind. At four she
announced to her mother that she would write books. On her tenth
birthday she got an atlas and a bike and shortly afterwards decided
that one day she would cycle to India. At 16 she had a strong
premonition that she would never marry.
"As long as people of
my sort are free," she wrote in her autobiography, Wheels Within
Wheels, "they can seem endlessly patient, understanding, cheerful --
even unselfish in a crisis. But deprive them of their freedom and
everything turns sour."
By 1965, her primary ambitions had been
accomplished: she had cycled from Dunkirk to Delhi on Roz, an Armstrong
Cadet man's bicycle, and Full Tilt, her book about the journey, had
been published by John Murray.
She was living her dreams, but the
intervening years had been emotionally exhausting. Her first lover and
both her parents were dead. Between the ages of 14 and 31, she had been
a full-time carer, looking after her mother who had rheumatoid
arthritis and was unable to walk.
Wheels Within Wheels is an
astutely-observed snippet of social history and a moving story of a
family. In carefully crafted, unflinching prose,
Murphy recounts her childhood and young adult life.
is sad, funny and, like all her writing, honest and determinedly
unsentimental. Her travel narratives eschew the navel-gazing and
egocentricity that often afflicts the genre. She writes in
chronological order, she doesn't sensationalise and she is essentially
private. Wheels Within Wheels was originally intended as a record for
Rachel. When John Murray insisted on publishing it, she took out the
bits that could cause offence to her living relatives, but left the
rest pretty much intact.
is tough on herself in the book, in her other writings and in general.
She does not make many concessions to vanity. In dress, she opts for
comfort and practicality: tracksuit pants, a faded top, sports shoes.
She always hated 'party clothes'. She is no self-publicist and does not
do book tours or book festivals or television. She was on the Late Late
Show once and is no fan of Gay Byrne.
She hates being interviewed
and having her photograph taken. Is it like being at the dentist, I ask
her as she tries to smile obligingly at the camera for the umpteenth
"Yes," she says, nodding vigorously.
She is sturdier
than I had imagined, but nimble. Her hair is white, her face lined. Her
voice is very low and though she was born and raised in Lismore, her
accent has a discernible trace of Dublin. Both her parents were from
the capital. They arrived in Co Waterford on their wedding day.
is humble but forthright, concerned with informing her readers and
expressing her many and often controversial opinions. Her books have
become increasingly political. There are fewer descriptions of
landscape and setting suns and more passages about the arrogance and
hypocrisy of the West and the impact of globalisation on developing
She is a seasoned environmentalist and an instinctive
campaigner, thinks globalisation is "deadly" in the worst sense of the
word. She is very vocal about nuclear arms, arms trading, Nato, the
World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation and so on.
laments the overall ineffectiveness of the UN, which she compares to
Christianity or Communism, a "beautiful idea that on the whole hasn't
worked because too few people have been committed to making it work".
she were not heading off to Russia, she tells me, she would be lending
her support to organisations campaigning for a No vote in the Nice
Treaty referendum. She thinks we should be asking ourselves whether or
not we want to become part of a "militaristic block". Ireland, she
thinks, has lost its identity.
"We're becoming sort of
globalised, and to a great extent that does mean Americanised, in the
concentration on the importance of material wealth and possessions and
big cars, the latest sort of designer clothes, flashy restaurants," she
says. "None of that is really part of our way of life.
angry and getting angrier by the minute about our tiger. I think it's
absolutely disgusting, all this talk about building a world class
stadium when we don't have one single detention centre for juvenile
offenders. They're shoved in with adult prisoners or, as the case may
be, left roaming around, uncared for.
"The deterioration in the
health service and the hospitals when we spend so much on new
motorways, prestige things, really gets up my nose."
Some might be discomfited by
Murphy's opinions, some might find her overly preachy. And she is preachy. But unlike many others, she practises what she preaches.
has a very ascetic lifestyle. Her luxuries are her mini-cigars and
whatever tipple is readily available in the country she's visiting:
banana beer in Rwanda, Beerlao in Laos, slivovitz and rakija in the
When travelling she eschews making choices she fears
might be exploitative, trying as far as possible to do no harm.
Wherever she goes she talks to "the people", eating what they eat and
sleeping where they sleep.
"Mass tourism doesn't leave much scope
for the individual to be a responsible tourist because mass tourism
involves some corporation owning some chains of hotels, moving in and
destroying an area," she says.
"Not as people used to say --
they've given up now -- spreading wealth throughout a poor community,
but importing the workers for their hotels and gradually upsetting the
While she doesn't think back-packers do the same
kind of damage to the local economy, she does think they damage the
relationship between independent travellers and the locals.
[back-packers] are often, in their own way, quite exploitative, looking
for bargains and haggling in the most inappropriate situations," she
says. "I don't personally see the point in just travelling in a group.
Everybody goes to the same place and eats the same food and talks about
the same things, really seeing very little of the local people."
dogmatic, her beliefs are underpinned by a genuine compassion for the
dispossessed and outrage about the gross injustices she has seen: the
displacement of tribal people in Laos by dam builders and logging
companies, aid agencies stifled by petty politics and bureaucracy, the
devastation caused by landmines. Her recent books are polemical but
leave room for her wry, quirky sense of humour to shine through.
the course of her journeys through the Balkans for Through the Embers
of Chaos, which will be published in September, she was robbed, kicked,
spat at, stoned by children and fumigated by exhaust emissions in a
dark tunnel. She also had to fight off the unwanted attentions of an
The book is typically less a guide for
potential travellers and more a record of a particular time and a
particular place, shaded -- of course -- by the
Murphy perspective. Being kicked and spat on was "grim", she admits, but she takes such hitches in her stride and carries on.
More disturbing for her was the rampant hatred and decimation of community life.
Full Tilt, she has written 18 books, and though she covered Northern
Ireland in A Place Apart, Rwanda in Down Among the Dead and South
Africa in South From the Limpopo, she found Through the Embers of Chaos
one of the most difficult to write.
This is partly, she says,
because she didn't come away with a sense of optimism for the Balkans
for the immediate future and partly because she feels the conflict was
unnecessary and fuelled by the attitude of the West.
actually wanted Yugoslavia to break up and could have handled it all
very differently from the beginning," she says. "I can remember
Yugoslavia in 1963, in the middle of the Tito time, and they had a very
good system going. It wasn't really Communism. People were free to
leave the country, travel abroad, study abroad, there was no
restriction on the literature they brought in to the universities and
"There was no real poverty and no real wealth. In a
way it was what I think we should all be aiming for, as equal a society
as you could get actually . . ."
An idealist. Is now and ever
shall be. An idealist who intends to travel and to write what she sees
until she quite literally drops in her tracks.
Through the Embers of Chaos will be published by John Murray in September at stg 20
Did I know Lismore,
Murphy asked me over the phone. No, I replied, but I would find it. I was talking to an inveterate
trailblazer and I wanted to sound competent at the very least.