The cyclist and author, is remembered on her anniversary by Sheila O’Kelly


Dervla Murphy was born on the 28th November, 1931 in Lismore, County Waterford. The only child of Fergus and Kathleen Murphy, Dervla was educated in the local schools in Lismore. When Dervla was ten years old, she received a bicycle from her grandfather and an atlas from her mother. She longed to travel and vowed she would cycle to India one day.

Dervla left school at fourteen years of age to take care of her mother who suffered from rheumatic arthritis since Dervla was a year old. Despite being in a wheelchair herself, Kathleen Murphy encouraged her daughter to travel and sent Dervla off to cycle around England and Wales in 1947.

Throughout the 1950s, Dervla travelled on her bicycle across Spain, Belgium, France and Germany. Her father died in 1961 and her mother died the following year. After taking care of her mother for sixteen years, Dervla was free to make the journey to India.

Commencing in January 1963, thirty-two year old Dervla travelled on a man’s bicycle across Europe in one of the worst winters in living memory. She cycled through Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas Mountains to Pakistan and finally to Delhi. She packed light; a change of clothes, a map, a compass, a paltry sum of money and a 0.25 pistol to protect her from animals and bandits.

Dervla observed, listened and recounted conversations she had with people in over thirty countries she visited. She depended on their generosity to provide provisions and shelter. She slept in youth hostels, Indian pagodas, Iranian teahouses, Kurdish coffee houses and nomad tents.

During her time in Delhi, Dervla worked with Tibetan refugee children. Six months later, she returned to her home in Lismore where she wrote her first book: ‘Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by Bicycle’. The book, published in 1965, describes her experience on a solo bicycle journey over four thousand miles.

In 1966, Dervla travelled by foot, on her bike, and with a pack mule in Ethiopia in Africa. The journey was detailed in her fourth book: ‘In Ethiopia with a Mule’ (1968). Dervla had an affair with Terence de Vere White, literary editor of the Irish Times, and their daughter, Rachael was born in 1968. Rachael’s father was a married man, and by mutual agreement was not involved in her upbringing.
For years, his paternity was kept a secret. Dervla revealed it after his death in 1994. Dervla took a break from travelling for a few years after the birth of Rachael and wrote frequently for the Irish Times. She specialised in reviewing books about travel covering Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own