Dervla Murphy - a national treasure

If Ireland had a system of acknowledging achievement or honouring significant contribution to society, then Dervla Murphy would long since have been designated "A National Treasure."

If Ireland had a system of acknowledging achievement or honouring significant contribution to society, then Dervla Murphy would long since have been designated "A National Treasure."

The nearest we have got to popular acknowledgement was in a recent TG4 documentary under the title "Who is Dervla Murphy?" For those viewers who had not already met this now 80 year-old County Waterford grandmother through her 22 books, the documentary must have been a breath of fresh air.

To her legions of devoted readers, who cannot wait for her next book, she is a traveller in very remote regions, a writer of elegant prose and woman with a rare understanding of people and places. I first met her in a photograph, published in "The Irish Independent," and taken against a background of Lismore Castle, and re-produced on the cover of her first book "Full Tilt," the story of her cycle from her County Waterford home to India, in the winter of 1962/63.

It is more than a story of travel and endurance; it is a story of courage and imagination, the fulfilment of a youthful ambition conceived when she was given a Christmas present of a bicycle and an atlas, by her parents. Looking through the maps, she saw, that if she crossed two seas, she could then cycle overland to India. As she said in the television documentary: "I was looking down at my legs thinking if you do this for long enough you could get to India."

That journey set the curriculum for further spectacular travel. There was the paucity of equipment: the pannier bicycles bags, the rucksacks, the small tent, the sleeping bag (affectionately known as "the flea-bag"), a few essential medicines, a change of clothes. It was a paradigm for life: not so much the things you could do with but rather the things you could not do without.

Depending on the terrain, the mode of travel was a bicycle, two human feet, sometimes a mule to carry the tent in the high mountains. And there was the Murphy curiosity, the penetrating intelligence and the facility to communicate with people, even when she did not know the language.

These were the ingredients which took her to remote, beautiful, sometimes scary, places: the Karakorams, the uplands of the Indus, the borders of China, Kashmir, Afghanistan. There was a 1,300 mile trek through the Andes, accompanied by her nine year-old daughter and a tempermental mule called Juana. There was yet another much more amiable mule, Jock, in an exploration of the highlands of Ethiopia.

All of her journeys were preceded by extensive reading in history, culture and politics. Her insights into the complexities of human relationships, in the context of the world's trouble-spots, are particularly astute. These are especially apparent in her travels in Africa, notably in Rwanda, where, she says, that the terrible killings were not, "as the world generally assumed, the result of 'primitive' tribalism, but rather a well-orchestrated genocidal campaign organised by a small elite and its sophisticated progaganda machine."

At home in Lismore in the Spring of 1976, and having "listened to two of the more bone-headed Northern politicians arguing..... I was appalled to hear myself saying viciously: "Why don't the Brits get out and let them all slaughter each other if that's how they feel? There's nothing to choose between them." (How many of us could echo the same irrational outburst?).

This thought process so shocked her, that she decided to postpone long-distance travel, and to explore the tragedy unfolding on her own doorstep. She was uniquely competent to do this, since she came of a staunchly Republican background. Her paternal family had taken the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. She, her self, had, over the period of her growing up, long abandoned the extremes of nationalism. Her autobiography "Wheels Within Wheels" (the story of the first 30 years of her life), follows the path of her break with this family tradition.

She cycled to Northern Ireland (via Clonmel), met ordinary people in their houses and streets and farms.

The northern journey continued the following year, she on her bicycle, and her daughter on a pony. They camped in fields on the Border and talked to anybody who would talk to them. They met with friendliness and hospitality, and were exposed to horrifying situations, some-times finding themselves "amongst people stiff with hate and grief."

The result was one of the most insightful and compassionate books to come out of the troubles: "A Place Apart." In a final chapter under the title "Not Without Hope," Dervla Murphy examined the then vague straws of hope which might be the basis for two divided peoples to live together without killing each other. The "straws" were clearly identifiable in the genesis of the Peace Agreement, except this only happened nearly two decades later, when several thousand more lives had been lost.

During those recent decades, her travels have taken her to other trouble spots, to Siberia (a vast place of extreme beauty and environmental exploitation) to the Balkans and another book "Through the Embers of Chaos." Here she looks at the convoluted history, the old sores, the battles long ago, which impelled closely-related people, who lived side-by-side, to kill each other on a scale that we never again thought we would witness in modern Europe.

Her last book, writen in her late seventies, is a study of modern Cuba: "The Island that Dared." This has been described as building "a complex picture of people struggling to retain their identity in the face of insistent American hostility."

After her wanderings in faraway places, Dervla Murphy always returns with joy to her home is Lismore, where she writes. Her first love as a child was the River Blackwater. The Knockmealdows were the first hills she climbed. A return cycle to Helvick, when barely into her teens, was her first long bicycle-ride.

She is now a writer of outstanding literary achievement; a woman with a world vision. And for those of us who share this Waterford/Tipperary country with her, she is one of our own.