Dervla Murphy

by Tiggered

Dervla Murphy - probably the best travel writer in the world. I've read all of her books and only wish there were more.

Dervla Murphy is known for solo bicycle journeys through some of the world's roughest destinations. Her courage and resilience are legendary, her writing style - sparkling. During more than forty years of travelling she's published over 20 books with stories from her treks. Each is a gem.

I fell in love with Murphy's writing after some twenty pages of her prose. Seven books later, my admiration is only more intense.

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Who is Dervla Murphy?

Irish shamrockBorn and raised in county Waterford, Ireland (where she still lives), Dervla Murphy is one of the most talented travel writers in the world. Now in her eighties, she’s been to numerous countries on most continents and has over twenty books filled with stories from the treks to show for it. Her preferred mode of locomotion is a bicycle, although she switches to other transports when the situation requires it (e.g. when she’s injured).

Dervla Murphy’s journeys are extremely budget-friendly: her first cycling trip, a six month journey from Ireland to India cost her 64 pounds. True, that was back in the 60′s, but even so – that is extra thrifty. When it comes to accommodation, she often stays with people met on the road or camps wild, usually there are no transport costs (cycling is free!) and her other needs are limited. She’s known for carrying few possessions, even on long journeys – an ability fast disappearing in modern world.

She doesn’t have much of ‘proper’ education, having left school at 14, but you would never guess it from her books. Her writing style is rich and engaging, with just the right balance between description and reflection. She appears to be quite a character, kind and cheerful, tough when she needs to be and politically incorrect to the utmost (which is one of her most endearing traits). Whatever else you can say about Murphy’s books, they are never dull.

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Have you ever heard of Dervla Murphy?

Full Tilt - the first travelogue by Dervla Murphy

Full TiltThe first book by Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt, launched her lifelong career in travel writing.

In 1963, Murphy equipped her bicycle for a long adventure and left Ireland for an epic journey. Destination: India. The journey took about six months and set her back by 65 pounds (that was long before Ireland adopted euro).

Full Tilt is a transcript of Murphy's journals written between Iran and India, with a foreword about the European leg of the journey.

Dervla Murphy's journeys through post-war Balkans

through the embers of chaosThe very first of Dervla Murphy's books that I've ever read. After ten pages, I started reading fragments aloud to my partner, after twenty, I was hooked for life.

Through The Embers Of Chaos describes a journey through a post-war Balkans, sometime in the late nineties. Inevitably, the war stays in the foreground as Dervla observes the devastation and unravelled societies. Some history helps to get an insight into contemporary matters. Masterfully described encounters with local people make the book extra vivid, even when they are of the unpleasant kind. Dervla's own take on the conflict is very humane and quite close to my heart, focused on people and critical of big politics.

Siberian journey of Dervla Murphy

through Siberia by accidentIf this journey went as planned, the book would be titled something like Through Ussuriland on purpose. Original itinerary would have taken Dervla much, much further into eastern Russia, almost to the border with China. It was not to be - the author was plagued by injuries and forced to change plans on the road. She gave up her bicycle, switching onto more conventional modes of locomotion, and adjusted the destination to more manageable in the circumstances. Goodbye Ussuriland, welcome Siberia!

Dervla Murphy visits Romania

Transylvania and beyondDervla has visited Romania right after the fall of Ceausescu, when the country was still in transition from terror to young democracy. An interesting country, in the fascinating moment in time.
The journey started on a strong note, with the writer being robbed of almost all her possessions, and continued in similar pace. As usual, travel memoir is embellished with background information on history, geography, social structure and economy of Romania.

Dervla Murphy and politics

Dervla Murphy could be fairly described as an activist. There’s plenty of politics in her books – not the names, parties and campaigns but issues that she considers important. If she travels through a politically sensitive area, she is quick to voice her opinions and some would call these quite radical.

She often points an accusatory finger towards the Western world, blaming it for some ills of the less developed countries. Big business and big politics are not her friends. She frequently condemns environmental devastation caused by the so-called progress, frowns at tourism and dependency on modern electronics. She doesn’t like some of the charity organisations (neither do I – see here) and international financial institutions. Generally, she tends to take the side of the underdog, whoever he happens to be.

Neither does she shy from the burning-hot issues of the international politics. In 2012 she published an open letter to the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins, sharply criticising the Israeli government and its sanction against Palestine. It caused quite a stir online.


Dervla Murphy on...


“Certainly economists are among the most dangerous animals on earth, skilled at making situations look so complicated that only their own solutions can solve the problems they themselves have created”
From The Ukimwi Road


“First you buy labour-saving devices, then you buy other devices to compensate for the lack of muscle-toning labour in your life”
From Through the Embers of Chaos

…environmental damage

“Can it be that as a species we’re on the way to mass-suicide, driven by a combination of unregulated greed and arrogant technological-scientific ingenuity? Our failure to take adequate measures to slow (or halt) climate change suggests that eventually we may become extinct because we’re so stupid.”
From Silverland

Dervla Murphy on 'AIDS trail'

Ukimwi road'Ukimwi' means AIDS in Swahili.

Dervla Murphy started her African journey simply to get away from it all, but soon AIDS become the dominant motif of her trek. The countries she passed through - Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe - have some of the highest rates of AIDS deaths in the world (and almost twenty years have passed since The Ukimwi Road was published...).

Dervla Murphy goes to Cuba

the island that daredCuba according to Dervla Murphy is not the nightmarish country that international press makes it to be. Sure, life there is not always perfect, but the Irish author actually praises Cuba for opposing the capitalist invasion and standing fast by its own idea for existence. Apparently, the 'Island that dared' has many positive features that rarely get discussed in international forums (such as outstanding record in humanitarian aid for disaster-struck countries, fantastic quality of higher education etc. etc.).
Definitely thought-provoking.

Dervla Murphy in Russia

silverlandDervla Murphy's second trip to Siberia. This time, she went for railway by choice, not by accident. Starting in Europe, she's crossed pretty much the whole continent: on the furthest point of her journey, she stared at the Pacific Ocean.

As usually, top-class writing skills are combined with admirable social awareness. Dervla Murphy is one of the few authors willing to speak up against the big and powerful of this world when she observes them doing harm - which, unsurprisingly, happens often.

The book is bittersweet, but fascinating.

Dervla Murphy in Rwanda

Visiting RwandaDervla Murphy visited Rwanda two years after 'the Rwandan genocide'. Unsurprisingly, the country was still suffering from the aftermath of the tragedy. Dervla's travel plans were repeatedly marred by the unstable political situation, so were her experiences with local people.

The book contains thundering criticism of UN and the 'international community' for their inability to stop the crime, even though they knew in advance of the trouble brewing.

Visiting Rwanda is definitely an unsettling book.

Updated: 08/26/2014, Tiggered
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