Dervla Murphy, ‘secular saint’ of travel writing, dies aged 90

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Dervla Murphy, the intrepid Irish travel writer who died aged 90, said she was never one to look to the future. “I’m really into living in the present, and I’m happy when I’m traveling or working from home on the next book or walking or cycling in West Waterford,” Murphy said in an interview with the Irish Times when she was 82.

Author of over 25 books, Murphy has traveled all over the world – to Peru, Pakistan, Africa, India, Siberia, Cuba, Romania, Laos, Israel and Palestine.

An avid cyclist, her first book was Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965). Her account of the six-month journey across Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and across the Himalayas to Pakistan and India established her as an exceptional new voice.

A master of pure reportage, she became a hero among travel writers and captivated readers with what travel writer Colin Thubron described as her “unpretentious, brilliantly honest, approachable” books marked by their “earthly humor and charm”.

Traveling by bicycle, on foot, by pony or by public transport – she never learned to drive – Murphy listened to, observed and recorded conversations she had with locals in more than 30 countries that she visited.

In a statement after his death, Murphy’s publishers, Eland Publishing in London, said “the world of travel writing has lost its secular saint, who believed in truth above all”.

“She was a great traveler, but more importantly, she was a great listener. Although highly cultured, she truly believed in understanding a place through the words of its people. She cared about everyone and class and racial boundaries seemed invisible to her,” said Rose Baring of Eland.

Although a loner by nature, Murphy was generous with her time, often encouraging new generations of travelers over a beer at her home in Lismore. Her courage to cycle around the world has inspired female travelers the world over.

“Today’s travel writers Colin Thubron and Sara Wheeler have often acknowledged his legacy of absolute truthfulness, humility and fearlessness,” added Rose Baring.

In 1979 Murphy won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s (1978), written after spending time with members of the Protestant and Catholic communities there.

In 2019, the Royal Geographical Society celebrated his work with the Ness Award for “Popularizing Geography through Travel Literature”. In 2021, she won the prestigious Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing.

Born in 1931, Murphy grew up in Lismore, Co Waterford, the only child of Dubliners, Fergus and Kathleen Murphy. After her travels, she always returned there. “I wouldn’t live anywhere but my little part of West Waterford,” she said.

“She practiced the deep political anti-capitalism and anti-materialism that inspired her work, living in an unheated house, baking her own bread and traveling to visit her editors in London by bus and ferry until she was 80,” Baring said.

President Michael D. Higgins said “people all over Ireland, in her community of Lismore and far beyond in the many places she traveled to, and there were many of them, will have been saddened” by the news of Murphy’s death.

“Although she is known as Ireland’s most famous travel writer, such a description hardly captures the fullness and deep understanding of her work,” the president said. “His contribution to writing, and travel writing in particular, had a unique commitment to the value of the human experience in all its diversity.

“She maintained a keen interest in those who suffered around the world until recent weeks and brought an insightful perspective to issues of politics, environmentalism and the critical importance of peace. sincere condolences to her daughter Rachel, with whom she shared so many of her adventures, to her grandchildren, as well as to all her family and friends.

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