10 Reasons to love: Dervla Murphy

28th Nov 2014

Dervla Murphy is inspirational. Her many travel books detail her journeys through Afghanistan, India, Cuba and Palestine (to name a few places!) and also the incredible resilience she's shown both as a young carer and in climbing the Afghan pass with a bicycle hanging from her neck! Gender has never stopped her leading an adventurous and politically engaged life...

1. Her dedication as a young carer

Despite a late start to her writing career, Dervla Murphy has been nothing if not prolific. She left school aged fourteen to care for her disabled mother, an increasingly difficult task that Dervla describes in great and searingly honest detail in her autobiography.

She did this for sixteen years, unable to properly start her life as she constantly had to be by her mother’s side, fighting for just an hour off a day to get outside and eventually suffering a breakdown.

Shortly after her mother died, Dervla Murphy set off to cycle from Ireland to India – a dream she’d had since she received a bicycle and an atlas for her 10th birthday. This journey formed her first book, Full Tilt: from Ireland to India and since then she has written twenty-two(!) travel books and an autobiography.

2. The wide range of her writing topics

Her books are really varied and there is something for everyone – from straightforward travel books whether by foot or bike, to strongly political books.

And then there’s her autobiography: Wheels within Wheels: The Makings of a Traveller, written when her daughter was too young to travel, so that she would have an idea of her mother’s upbringing.

It is a wonderful exploration of the impact of the strength of Irish religion on a young girl, of sexual development and first love, and of the challenges of being a carer for a loved family member.

3. The places her books can take you to

Reading her books is a way to travel to places that today we may never get a chance to visit. Dervla Murphy writes with incredible passion and detail about places like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gaza Strip.

4. The way she describes those places

Her books contain absolutely stunning descriptions of the landscape that really makes the reader feel like they are there. For example, going by bus over a mountain pass in Afghanistan during a storm – “not flashes as we know them, but glaring sheets of blue illumination, revealing gaunt peaks on one side and sickening ravines on the other; yet it was all so beautiful and awe-inspiring that one simply forgot to be afraid.”

5. The things she’s capable of doing

Dervla’s physical feats of endurance are incredible, from cycling 50 miles as a ten year old, alone, to climbing over a remote Afghan pass on ground so steep, snowy and icy that she was forced to hang her bike (with panniers) around her neck and continue climbing – with little more than a few nuts for sustenance.

6. Her bravery

She is incredibly brave (although she would not describe herself as such). During her solo cycle to India, Dervla Murphy cycled through a winter so cold her hands froze to the handlebars and she was swept off her bike by a wave from an overflowing river.

She fought off an attack by a herd of wild wolves, and by a half-undressed man standing over her bed in the middle of the night. Later she ran out of water and got heatstroke – lying unconscious for hours, until she finally gained enough strength to wobble her way on.

7. She never lets her gender affect her

The fact that as a woman, she perhaps should not do the things she has done – traveling alone through the Middle East in the early sixties and through the highlands of Ethiopia, having a daughter “out of wedlock” in Ireland in 1968, interviewing Hamas officials in Gaza in her 80s – absolutely never occurs to Dervla Murphy.

She describes others’ amazed surprise or misunderstandings (assuming she’s a man) but never questions her own actions. And age hasn’t stopped her either!

8. Her attitude towards globalisation

Dervla is and has always been very anti-globalisation and anti-materialistic, not holding back when she criticises tourists whose only contact with local people is to take pictures of them.

She is completely opposed to increasing Western influence in remote places, describing religious colonialism as “a pathetic national superiority complex” and questioning “what compels us to infect everyone else with our own sick urgency to change, soften and standardise?”

9. Her book about Gaza and Palestine

A Month by the Sea is a wonderful way of getting to know a bit about the fractured politics and culture of Gaza – although staunchly pro-Palestinian, Dervla Murphy wastes no words in exposing the rifts between Fatah & Hamas and criticising the status of women in Gaza.

10. Her changing views and opinions throughout her books

The fact she has had such a long and prolific writing career allows the avid reader to see the development in her thoughts and interests. For example Dervla’s first book contains very little politics, but her writing became increasingly more political after she spent time in Peru.

She later wrote about Northern Irish politics, race relations in Northern Britain, Rwanda and post-apartheid South Africa. Her views on women have also changed and the difference in her opinion from A Month by the Sea to Full Tilt and In Ethiopia with a Mule is almost incredible when you read one book immediately after the other and forget that at least forty years have passed between the two!

Below are some more of Dervla’s titles you might enjoy:

Where the Indus is Young: A Winter in Baltistan

The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba

Wheels within Wheels: the Makings of a Traveller

One Foot in Laos

Visiting Rwanda

South from the Limpopo: Travels through South Africa

Tales from Two Cities

Erm, WOW! What an incredible woman, what’s your favourite Dervla Murphy book? What other travel writers should be on our radar at For Books Sake? Leave us a comment below.