Since first reading Dervla Murphy’s book, Full Tilt, about her cycling adventure from Dublin to Delhi, I wondered how she overcame the fear and got up the courage, to undertake such a perilous journey. When I interviewed her at her home in Lismore, Ireland, I finally got the chance to ask her. But Dervla’s answer surprised me, and I’ve thought of it many times since that day.
I had one thing on my mind as I ineptly steered my rental car along south Ireland’s narrow roads to reach the small town of Lismore in County Waterford. Well, one thing aside from not scraping the entire left side of the car off the frame. I just wanted to ask the famed travel writer, Dervla Murphy, about fear and courage.
In 1963, at the age of 32, Dervla got on her bicycle, Roz, and rode from Dublin to Delhi. Always an avid cyclist, Dervla had been confined to her native Ireland all her adult life due to aging and unwell parents. But after they died, and she was free from obligation, she put her soul in a crossbow and fired.
Dervla’s book chronicles her journey across Europe and the Middle East, through countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The tale is tall, with stories about fending off wolves and men with her pistol, braving blizzards and snakes, and suffering accidents and broken bones. I counted about four times she faced mortal danger, but of course it’s also full of insight and lyrical passages about the beauty she found, the connection she felt with Afghanistan — a country she loved — and the wonder and joy of someone having a big adventure and discovering the world for the first time.
Published in 1965, it was the first of about 40 books of travel adventures she’s written. Full Tilt was the one that really spoke to me because I related to finally being released for adventure and diving into the deep end of the pool. Though what I did was not nearly as ambitious, it was still a big jump for me to embark on a six-month journey across India when I was 45, having never really traveled, and in the throes of recovering from intractable grief.
I wanted to know how she got up the courage, back in the 1960s, to ride alone across some of the most inhospitable terrains on earth, at a time when women rarely traveled alone. So when I found myself in Ireland, I made arrangements to visit her at her home in Lismore.
I had Dervla’s number and called her, and she said she would come and meet me at the car. Suddenly, there she was, striding towards me in an over-sized sweater, full of warmth and vigor, as she motioned for me to follow her. We walked to an unremarkable lane that I would never have noticed, through an iron gate in an old stone wall topped with flowers and foliage, and into her eccentric home.
Dervla lives in what used to be the Lismore market, a collection of old stone buildings around an open courtyard. Her study, with the walls lined floor-to-ceiling with books, is said to date back to the 17th-century. Dogs and cats have the run of the place, which has a homely, ramshackle, and surprisingly private feel to it, and though it would not be comfortable for most people, she loves it, despite being 82 at the time of this interview.
We sit down at the table, also piled with books and papers, and the first thing she does is offer me a beer. One of those thick, dark stouts they like so much in Ireland. I decline the beer but accept tea, which she makes in her small kitchen. As I look around, I see many signs of a life well-lived. Cards, invitations, and letters are scattered all over the overflowing bookshelves, photographs of her daughter, Rachel, are framed on the walls, and a Tibetan flag is draped over her typewriter. Since the time of Full Tilt, Dervla has been a supporter of the Tibetan cause, and she volunteered with the Tibetan community in India.
Dervla and I spend the next hour or two chatting about traveling, writing, and navigating the world as a single, motherless woman. As we talk I realize we have a lot in common, including making India the destination of our first real journey, and it occurs to me that Dervla is exactly one year and four days younger than my mother. Losing my mother when I was 37 was the catalyst for me to become a traveler and writer. But there the similarities end for I have never had an adventure like Full Tilt, and we circle back to my reason for being there. I cannot imagine having that much courage. Didn’t she feel afraid? How did she overcome the fear?
“Naaahhhhh,” she says, drawing out the sound for emphasis. “It doesn’t take courage. It takes curiosity.” Her answer surprised me, to say the least. I never looked at it that way. But what about advice for young women traveling solo?
“I would say that, within reason, there is no reason to be afraid. If you take reasonable precautions, I don’t see why any young woman shouldn’t travel wherever she likes, alone,” says Murphy. “What’s the problem? If you feel confident, and you trust people, that forms your attitude, and people realize they’re being trusted, and they respond to that by treating you well.”
Curiosity and trust. I thought about these words, her mantra for travel, as I waved goodbye and continued on my drive towards Cork, and the home of my Irish ancestors. I was in Ireland for the first time, to “walk the ground” of my ancestors, as my genealogist put it.
As I drove out of town, I realized the Blackwater River that ran through Lismore also ran through my ancestral village, Castletownroche. I couldn’t help but marvel at all the coincidences that brought me here, and all the similarities between Dervla and myself.
I felt a sense of deep calm, a profound inner peace, that all the stars do indeed align sometimes and give us exactly what we need. For me, traveling to meet Dervla Murphy in Lismore was like a pilgrimage, a journey to a holy mountain to seek the wisdom of a guru, for I’ve thought of her words many times since, and continue to let them guide me as I travel.