TCM Archives > Sunday Business Post > 2002/08/18 > Trailblazer : Dervla Murphy

Sunday, August 18, 2002 :
Trailblazer : Dervla Murphy
Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Joanne Hayden

Murphy 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 Murphy 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.

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.

Murphy 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.

It 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.

Murphy 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 time.

"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.

Murphy 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 countries.

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.

She 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".

If 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.

"I'm very 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.

She 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 Balkans.

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 local economy."

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.

"They [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."

However 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.

In 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 amorous innkeeper.

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.

Since 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.

"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 otherwise.

"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, Dervla 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.


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