Remembering Dervla Murphy

A tribute to a great travel writer and a special friend for 40 years

On May 5 I received an email from Dervla’s friend and PR, Steph Allen, with this message: “I’ve just spoken to Dervla who is not at all well. She has heart failure and believes that she is (in her own words) on her way out. I asked if there was anyone she’d like me to let know and she asked if I could send you a message to say thank you for everything you have done for her over the years”.  This unwarranted thoughtfulness and generosity personifies this extraordinary woman who died on May 22, and who I first met in 1979 in an Ecuadorian hostal (the sort with no hot water, $3 a night, with rooms clustered around a courtyard). She was returning from Peru, which would (eventually) result in Eight Feet in the Andes and George and I were researching our guide to  Backpacking in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador – the third in our fledgling backpacking series. I, like so many other young travellers, had been inspired by Dervla’s early books, in my case Full Tilt and In Ethiopia with a Mule, and was awe-struck to meet such a famous writer. The awe was diluted by a shared bottle of local rum, but the admiration grew steadily throughout our 44-year friendship.

Two years after that meeting George and I published the third edition of our Backpacking and Trekking in Peru & Bolivia. I say third edition but it was our first ever typeset book, the first Peru one with a spine, and with maps that I had laboriously created with Letraset. Posh, in other words. With some hesitation I asked Dervla if she would write a foreword. Her generous words, I’m sure, helped launch not only this book but Bradt Enterprises. We were able to quote her for years and gain credibility.

Since her death the obituaries and articles about Dervla Murphy still focus on the adventures described in Full Tilt – which would irritate her. That extraordinary journey in 1963 did indeed set a new standard for women travellers which, in these days of social media, will never be equalled. But Dervla evolved into a far more complex writer. She became increasingly interested in the politics of a country and – as the seventies arrived with a growing number of young people hitting the Hippy Trail or the Gringo Trail – ever more disdainful of ‘The Tourist Industry’.  She bought Bradt guides to research the obscure countries and regions that she travelled to – much more wary of running into the dreaded Tourist than being set upon by bandits or falling into a ravine – and remained a genuine admirer for the literary quality of our guides. During a visit in 2019 I was gratified to see a shelf full of Bradt guides in her living room, studied for the history sections. She certainly ignored most of the practical advice, and clearly never even glanced at Health and Safety. I have a letter of mine taking her gently to task for travelling without pain killers, without spare batteries, no waterproofs, and relying on a £15 tent that leaked and cheap boots with a nail that pierced the sole of her foot. And for trying to treat hepatitis with doses of rum! But of course her extraordinary talent for mishaps, her pursuit of discomfort, and her happy reliance on the local people – even to the extent of not being able to load her own mule in Ethiopia – are what makes her books such a good read.

Hilary and Isabel Conway chat to Dervla about her experience of a lifetime of travel

We saw a lot of each other in the 1980s because, on a practical level, we needed each other. Dervla’s publisher Jock Murray (more about the Murrays later) asked me to check the Peru manuscript for inaccuracies, which I did but I never asked about deadlines so by the time I’d finished my nit-picking, the book had gone to press.  I still look at one particular photo with a wry smile. The caption says “First sight of a llama near Cerro de Pasco” but my response was “But that’s Pancho the alpaca in Machu Picchu!” By the time the book was published in 1983 I had been leading treks to Peru for four years so had met Pancho a few times. Dervla’s next proper journey after Peru was to Madagascar and with so few Brits having been there in 1983, I, with my two visits, was able to be some help in the planning, and in checking the manuscript. I then felt bold enough, and selfish enough, to ask Dervla to read my pencil-written manuscript for the book which eventually became A Connemara Journey.  She had been closely involved in this pony trek; I had borrowed some tack beforehand and stayed for a couple of weeks at her home, The Old Market, in Lismore during the second part of my ride with Peggy, first meeting Dervla’s friends and useful contacts and then looking after cats, bantams and Orlando the goat while she attended a literary conference in Edinburgh. The organiser phoned just after Dervla had left, wanting a last-minute word. “Oh, has she already taken a taxi to the airport?” she asked “No”, I responded, “She’s hitchhiking to Dublin to catch the ferry.”

Dervla’s response to a careful reading of that manuscript, written in two weeks in pencil on two blocks of lined paper, saved me from what could have been a disaster. This was my first (and still my only) narrative travel book and I was overly keen to get it published – by Murray, I optimistically and unrealistically supposed. Dervla’s letter returning the manuscript began “It would be stupid to say that ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ because it clearly doesn’t but still it hurts me a lot to have to say that I don’t think the Irish journey makes a book.” She goes on to explain that, like her Mexican journey that Jock refused to publish, not enough happens. “I feel that If you had had time to put it aside for a month and then reread it, you yourself would have arrived at the same verdict”. Well, I put it aside for 30 years! And on rereading it I fully appreciated the debt I owe her. Completely revised, with a new focus on the bond with the two ponies and additional snippets of legend and history, it is now a book I’m proud of. To have the courage and to take the trouble to tactfully give someone bad news that you know will upset them is the mark of true friendship. 

During the 1980s I visited Dervla as often as I could, but it was not easy. There were no buses to Lismore, the only way to reach the village was by hitchhiking from the Dublin ferry. I learned early not to stay during the winter. It was impossible to keep warm in the Old Market where all rooms opened onto a central courtyard and there was no hot water or central heating. Another shivering guest left an electric blanket dangling from her gate, knowing if offered it would be refused. But in the summer, what a wonderful place of warmth, conversation, drop-in friends, and various pets – although normal comforts were still a low priority. My cautious enquiry about a bath got this response: “The river’s down there.”  

So our place of meeting was often Cannon Lodge, the Hampstead home of her wonderful publisher and editor Jock and Diana Murray. They epitomised the traditional publisher who nurtured and cherished their writers and Dervla used to stay for weeks at a time. I was drawn into this welcoming family and sometimes joined them for conversation in the garden. Jock sent me the occasional report including this one dated 1986: “Thank you for the Dervla review which I showed her because unexpectedly she passed through Cannon Lodge on her way to a British-Irish Conference at Oxford for which she had to wear evening dress – an alarming prospect for which we had a dress rehearsal after she had had a bath to get rid of a flea she had collected in Dublin!”

Hilary and Dervla in 2012 © Deborah Singmaster

Many authors have experienced a ‘Book-signing Tour’ but surely none has described the downside as entertainingly as Dervla. Here’s an extract from a 1984 Bookseller article: “My venue was Cambridge, where herds of besotted Dervla Murphy fans were expected to stampede into Bowes & Bowes, trembling in their eagerness to shake the hand that wrote the books that widened the horizons of so many. Over-excited by the author’s presence, and dazzled by the prospect of signed copies, they would then spend so recklessly that strong men might be needed to help them carry home their parcels of DM hardbacks. In fact four DM fans turned up – or four and a half if you count a nonagenarian who only came because he thought I was Isabella Bird Bishop. None of them found my aura so unbalancing that they were tempted to the extravagance of hardbacks.” 

The decades passed, as did Jock and Diana, and Dervla moved to another publisher, Eland Books, who nurtured her as carefully as her predecessor. She and I continued to correspond at least once a year when we exchanged ‘round robin’ Christmas letters with personal notes added at the bottom. But without Cannon Lodge and the inevitable non-visit times when she was away researching a book or ‘In purdah’ writing it, there was not much opportunity to get together. But letters did the trick of keeping in touch and have provided so much material for these recollections (and for the article in yesterday’s Sunday Times). Then, in 2014, we published the first of our five anthologies of travel writing, most of which feature extracts from Dervla’s books. The Irresponsible Traveller included that signature bit of (wonderful!) irresponsibility – taking a six-year-old trekking in Baltistan (Pakistan) in the winter for three months. She wrote a five-page foreword for To Oldly Go (2015) extolling the virtues of oldie travel. I chose extracts from her horrendous train journey in Cuba (taken from The Island that Dared) when she was 74, and finally she wrote another five-page foreword to Kidding Around which reused the extracts from Where the Indus is Young since these epitomise Dervla’s eye-popping travels with Rachel. Despite increasing discomfort due to debilitating arthritis she agreed that this was the ideal opportunity to voice her strong feelings about the pampered modern generation and to defend the Murphy style of bringing up children. This was her final published piece. Increasing ill health put an end to her travels and writing career although she cheerfully told me a year ago that she hoped to live to 100 because the world was so full of interest.

I’m glad she didn’t, and I know she will have gone gentle into that good night. Rest in peace, Dervla. I’ll miss you.

A free ebook of the anthology Kidding Around – the foreword to which was Dervla Murphy’s last published piece – will be made available to all Travel Club subscribers in July.