Dervla Murphy: Intrepid travel writer who cycled from Ireland to India

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Murphy began her first transcontinental long-distance cycle tour in January 1963 (Shutterstock)
Murphy began her first transcontinental long-distance cycle tour in January 1963 (Shutterstock)

Dervla Murphy was the intrepid traveller and writer whose fascinating books recount the stories of her adventurous bicycle journeys throughout the world.

Murphy, who has died aged 90, wrote more than 20 volumes about her voyages. Her best known work, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, was published in 1965 and has since become a classic of the genre.

Once asked what she considered the key element of her travels, she replied “Chiefly, being alone. Not always... But I think an essential part of the journey, for me, is being alone and being completely cut off from home, from family and friends.”

Dervla Murphy was born in Lismore, County Wexford, in 1931, the only child of Kathleen and Fergus Murphy, a librarian.

She received her first bicycle as a present, recalling “For my 10th birthday my parents gave me a second-hand bicycle and Pappa [her grandfather] sent me a second-hand atlas. Already I was an enthusiastic cyclist, though I had never before owned a bicycle, and soon after my birthday I resolved to cycle to India one day.”

Educated at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, Murphy left school aged 14 to look after her mother, who had become disabled by arthritis.

She took her first cycle trips in the early 1950s, crossing the Irish Sea to Wales and to southern England. The following year she ventured further, towards France, Belgium and Germany and the year after southwards, to Spain.

Dervla with her trusty bike in 1994 (John Minihan)
Dervla with her trusty bike in 1994 (John Minihan)

Murphy began her first transcontinental long-distance cycle tour in January 1963, embarking on a 3000-mile voyage from her home in Ireland to India to fulfil her childhood dream. Taking the most direct route possible, she rode across mainland Europe – enduring thick snow and freezing temperatures – through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan until she reached her ultimate destination. Arriving in Delhi some six months later, she went on to work with Save the Children, helping Tibetan refugees in northern India.

Equipment for such a voyage was basic, as she detailed later in her account: a change of clothes, basic toiletries, Nehru’s History of India, Blake’s poems and a .25 calibre automatic pistol, amongst other items.

Having already written a number of articles about her travels for the Irish Independent newspaper, Murphy was encouraged to document this epic ride more fully. The resulting travelogue, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, went on to become a best-seller in its sector and has been in print ever since.

Her trips were not without risk, although she claimed that “...in general the possibility of physical danger does not frighten me, courage is not required”. On one occasion, whilst travelling through Bulgaria, she was attacked by wolves and had to resort to firing her pistol. Another time, trekking across Ethiopia on foot, she was robbed by armed bandits, considering herself lucky to have escaped alive.

The writer endured thick snow and freezing temperatures until she reached India (Tara Heinemann)
The writer endured thick snow and freezing temperatures until she reached India (Tara Heinemann)

In 1977 Murphy and her daughter Rachel, then aged nine, made the journey to the Peruvian Andes. “People considered it insanity for us to set out with only basic supplies to a part of the country that had no roads, no hospitals, no services”, she later recalled, “But that was why we were there in the first place.”

Murphy was recognised with the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in 1978 for her book A Place Apart (1978). The award-winning work is an account of Murphy’s travels in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles and her quest to understand both sides of the divide. Her autobiography, Wheels within Wheels, was published the following year, covering the period of her life before she took to her bicycle.

Her publisher, John Hatt of Eland Books, said in tribute “Thank you for your friendship, your principled wisdom, your questing conversation and your unflinching books”, whilst the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins, said “Her contribution to writing, and to travel writing in particular, had a unique commitment to the value of human experience in all its diversity”.

She is survived by her daughter, Rachel, from a relationship with Terence de Vere White.

Dervla Murphy, cyclist and travel writer, born 28 November 1931, died 22 May 2022

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