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Dervla Murphy - A Fearless Explorer on Two Wheels

Dervla Murphy, the intrepid Irish touring cyclist and acclaimed travel writer, left an indelible mark on the world with her daring adventures. Born on November 28, 1931, in Lismore, County Waterford, she spent over 50 years chronicling her remarkable journeys across continents. Let’s delve into the captivating life and travels of this extraordinary woman.

Born and raised in Lismore, County Waterford, Murphy's childhood dream of traveling was sparked by a second-hand bicycle and an atlas received on her tenth birthday. Her determination to cycle to India one day was crystallized on a steep hill near Lismore. Despite leaving secondary school at 14 to care for her disabled mother, Murphy undertook various short trips in her youth and published travel articles in journals like Hibernia and the Irish Independent.

The death of her first lover, Godfrey, in 1958, followed by the illnesses and deaths of her father and mother in 1961 and 1962, respectively, marked a turning point. Freed from domestic responsibilities, Murphy embarked on the extended journey she had long envisioned.

Dervla Murphy with her bike in India in 1963

In 1963, armed with determination and her trusty bicycle, Dervla embarked on an audacious expedition. Her mission? To pedal from her home in Ireland all the way to India. Taking a pistol along with other equipment aboard her Armstrong Cadet men's bicycle (named Rozinante in allusion to Don Quixote's steed, and always known as Roz), she passed through Europe during one of the worst winters in years. In Yugoslavia, Murphy began to write a journal instead of mailing letters. In Iran she used her gun to frighten off a group of thieves, and "used unprintable tactics" to escape from an attempted rapist at a police station. She received her worst injury of the journey on a bus in Afghanistan, when a rifle butt hit her and fractured three ribs; however, this only delayed her for a short while. She wrote appreciatively about the landscape and people of Afghanistan, calling herself "Afghanatical" and claiming that the Afghan "is a man after my own heart."

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy

In Pakistan, she visited Swat (where she was a guest of the last wali, Miangul Aurangzeb) and the mountain area of Gilgit. The final leg of her trip took her through the Punjab region and over the border to India towards Delhi.

Dervla’s book, “Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle,” published in 1965, immortalized this epic journey. Through her vivid prose, readers rode alongside her, feeling the wind in their hair and the thrill of the open road. She captured the essence of adventure—the raw beauty of landscapes, the kindness of strangers, and the resilience required to conquer the unknown.

Post-Delhi, Murphy engaged in volunteer work with Tibetan refugees, contributing to the Save the Children organization. Her experiences in Dharamsala and the Kullu Valley were captured in "Tibetan Foothold." Further travels led her to Africa in 1966, where she walked with a pack mule in Ethiopia, detailed in "In Ethiopia with a Mule."

Murphy's daughter, Rachel, became her travel companion at the age of five, accompanying her on journeys to India, Peru, Madagascar, and Cameroon. Their adventures challenged traditional gender roles, with Dervla often mistaken for Rachel's husband. She surmised that this misgendering occurred not only because of her physique but also because the idea of women traveling so far without a man was inconceivable.

Not confined to conventional travel narratives, Murphy delved into political issues. Her book "A Place Apart" (1978) focused on Northern Ireland, winning the 1979 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. Subsequent works addressed global concerns, including apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, and post-war reconstruction in the Balkans.

In her later years, Murphy continued to push boundaries. At 71, she planned to cycle in eastern Russia but, following injuries, documented her journey around Siberia by train, boat, and bus in "Through Siberia by Accident."

A unique figure in travel writing, Murphy's outspoken views extended beyond her adventures. She was anti-globalization, critical of international institutions, and a vocal advocate against nuclear power and climate change.

Through Siberia by Accident by Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy passed away on 22 May 2022, leaving behind a legacy that earned her recognition as the Inspiring Cyclist of the Year in 2019 and the Royal Geographical Society's Ness Award for the popularization of geography through travel literature. Her contribution to writing, particularly travel writing, was celebrated by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who acknowledged her unique commitment to the value of human experience in all its diversity.

Dervla’s journeys were not for the faint-hearted. She danced with danger, surviving encounters with wolves in Bulgaria, threats from soldiers in Ethiopia, and even a robbery in Siberia. Yet, she considered tripping over cats at home and shattering her left arm as her worst incident—a testament to her resilience and perspective. Dervla Murphy’s legacy extends beyond her books. She inspired countless travelers to embrace the road less traveled, to seek connections with people, and to cherish the unpredictable. Her spirit lives on in those who dare to pedal, hike, and explore—those who understand that the journey itself is the greatest reward. So, let us raise our imaginary glasses to Dervla Murphy—the woman who pedaled her way into our hearts, leaving tire tracks of courage.



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