Travelling life: Dervla Murphy, the outspoken and adventurous Irish travel writer

The Irish travel writer who never goes on holiday, rues the effects that politics and modernisation can have on a place, and whose latest book is about the Gaza Strip, tells Rosemary Behan what keeps her on the road

Travel writer Dervla Murphy at her home in Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland. Paddy Barker / The Irish Examiner
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One of Ireland's most famous travel writers, now 82, Dervla Murphy published her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle in 1965. Since then, she has published a further 22 travel books and an autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels: The Makings of a Traveller. Principled, uncompromising and honest, and an opponent of mass tourism, Murphy's books often reflect hard journeys taken alone or with her daughter, Rachel. The result is a characteristically intimate portrait of a place and its people, and of the writer herself in situations that most of us would avoid for reasons of time and comfort but nevertheless find fascinating. Other titles include In Ethiopia with a Mule, The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba, Through Siberia by Accident, The Ukimwi Road: From Kenya to Zimbabwe, Eight Feet in the Andes and Muddling through in Madagascar. Murphy's latest book, A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza, is published by Eland and follows a trip that she made in 2011 in which she met liberals and Islamists, supporters of Fatah and Hamas, rich and poor. Still living in her hometown of Lismore in County Waterford, Murphy has become a fierce supporter of the Palestinian cause; her next book is about her visits to the West Bank.
How often do you travel?
There's absolutely no regularity to it. It depends what books I'm writing, what family commitments I have (my daughter and grandchildren live in Italy) and my health - I've recently had my shoulder replaced, had a hip replacement three years ago, and before that I suffered a fractured spine and three broken ribs on my travels.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I'm rooted to the home I grew up in, in Lismore in Ireland, and I do my writing here, but one doesn't really go anywhere for inspiration, it comes from the travelling.
How many countries have you been to?
I have no idea. Not that many, as I like to spend time in a place and not rush through it.
Do you prefer the travelling or the writing?
I enjoy them equally in completely different ways. When my daughter was born, I decided that for her first five years I wouldn't leave Europe, so that she would grow up in a stable, secure routine, and I was perfectly happy with that - so I was able to give up travelling for five years, but I couldn't have given up writing for five years.
What is your daily routine?
From early May until late September, I will get up at 5am and go straight down to the river for a swim. In the winter, I'll take the dogs for a walk. I'll have a very big breakfast, then the rest of the day is work.
Do you still not take notes on your travels?
This was something that developed in these extremely tense situations when I was doing the Northern Ireland book [A Place Apart] - you couldn't possibly have brought out a Dictaphone or notebook. So I just developed the sort of memory control so that if I went out immediately after a conversation I could write it all down - but it had to be immediately - so I would just go round the corner and sit on the street and do it. When I kept my journals on long journeys, I would just take down a sort of shorthand of my impressions every evening, but the real writing came later. I didn't think about anything else at the time except getting down my impressions of that day and the information that I might have gathered. During the day, to remind me of something particular, I would just jot down two or three words in my own shorthand and then expand on it later that night in the journal. Because on really enjoyable, exciting journeys, in just one day's travelling, there can be so many different enjoyable and exciting experiences.
Do you ever go on holiday?
No. My holidays are being here between books, and having friends and family to stay.
How do you pack for your travels?
With each trip I pack less and less, as the more you travel, the more you realise how little you actually need. I can pack for any trip in about an hour. I always take a map, a change of underwear, a compass, sunscreen and a coat if it's really cold. On long trips, one needs a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and stove.
What do you love about travelling?
The unexpectedness of every day and, especially, never knowing where you're going to be that night. Generally, the unpredictability of it.
What do you hate about travelling?
I don't hate anything about the way that I normally travel, but I would hate to stay in a hotel, to go everywhere by motorised transport and to go anywhere too hot. I love the cold, and could take any amount of freezing weather, but in severe heat I think I would just fade away. I couldn't live in the UAE because I don't like the heat and I don't like air con.
Travel is clearly your one passion, but did you ever have any other desire to start a business, invest in property or do anything else?
No! Never.
What are your favourite cities?
I'm not really a city person, and I don't like to stay in them any longer than necessary, but if I had to choose I'd say Paris and San Francisco. They both have a great buzz in completely different ways. I still haven't been to many of the world's great cities, like Rome, Athens or New York.
What is your favourite country?
It would be Afghanistan, 50 years ago. It appealed on so many different levels, but I couldn't bear to revisit it now with everything that has happened. It wasn't impoverished in the same way that India and Pakistan were, and I met a lot of interesting and intelligent people there. In Ireland, my favourite places are Lismore, County Leitrim and the Aran Islands as they used to be. I wouldn't want to go back to the Aran Islands now, as they would be completely different - horribly developed. But, really, all of Ireland is beautiful when you get off the main roads and onto the little ones.
Do you think people are often more hospitable because you're Irish?
I think that's often the case, yes. I think it's a big advantage in many countries.
What do you think of the Middle East?
What's going on today is too awful for words, and one can't honestly say what should be done about it, but I think the best thing could simply be to try to understand what's going on. Politics is failing, and so many innocent, straightforward people are suffering.
Where will you go next?
I don't want to think about this until my Palestine book is finished. I love Tibetans but I'm not sure I'd want to see their country under Chinese rule.