By Michael Shapiro, photos by Michael Shapiro and Jacqueline Yau
Attending the Immrama travel literature festival in southern Ireland, an author catches up with the interview he missed long ago and rubs shoulders with writers and local characters in a corner of the country that’s beaten back “progress.”
“Trying to interview Dervla Murphy is like trying to open an oyster … with a wet bus ticket.”
That line came from the 2010 documentary, Who is Dervla Murphy, about the intrepid Irish travel writer. In 2003, I’d hoped to go to Ireland to interview the author of Full Tilt and Eight Feet in the Andes for my book A Sense of Place, a collection of conversations with the world’s leading travel writers. But each time I went overseas to conduct interviews for the book, Dervla was on the road.
Then something serendipitous happened. Last spring, the organizers of Immrama, a travel literature festival in Ireland, contacted me and asked if I could put them in touch with Jonathan Raban, who appears in A Sense of Place. I said sure and asked where the festival is.
“Lismore, in County Waterford,” said Mary Houlihan, the vivacious organizer of the festival. “Down in the south of Ireland,” she added graciously, in case I didn’t know.
“Lismore,” I rolled the name through my mind and then it clicked. “Isn’t that where Dervla Murphy lives?”
“Indeed it is,” Mary said.
Before she finished that short sentence I was mentally booking my airline ticket.
“So Dervla will be headlining the festival?” I asked rhetorically.
“Well,” said Mary, “She’s not much for publicity. She usually disappears during Immrama. But we have some other fine writers this year.”
Sure they do, I thought to myself.
“Jan Morris and Pico Iyer are coming, and so is Sir Ranulph Fiennes.”
I almost fell out of my chair: two of the world’s most accomplished authors about place joined by the polar explorer who crossed the length of Antarctica by foot and ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
Fiennes was the first person to reach the North and South Pole overland, but here’s what I remember about him: he pulled a sled from icy waters during an attempt to walk solo to the North Pole in 2000 and suffered from frostbite on his hands. Upon his return home to Britain, he found the pain untenable and, unwilling to wait for a doctor, took a Black and Decker to his fingers to cut off the dead tips.
“Maybe you could find a way here,” Mary said, explaining that Lismore offered more than just the festival. The town dates to 636 and is home to Lismore Castle, she said, which overlooks the River Blackwater, known as Ireland’s Rhine.
And then she hooked me with a passing remark: the Celtic Tiger never quite made it down to west Waterford. The pubs, inns and landscape have remained virtually untouched by the whirlwind of prosperity and modernity that had whipped through Ireland, transforming Dublin and other Irish cities before disappearing in a deluge of debt.
The timing of the festival was perfect: I could combine a visit to Dublin for Bloomsday, held every June 16 when just about everyone in the city dresses up as characters from James Joyce’s Ulysses, with a trip to Lismore for Immrama. I booked tickets for myself and my girlfriend, Jackie.
Going Full Tilt with Dervla
Two months later I’m in Dervla Murphy’s garden, hoisting a couple of frosty pints, her three little dogs climbing all over us. It’s true Dervla rarely does interviews these days, but not because she’s aloof or introverted; she’s about as far from pretentious as you can get. “It’s just that I hate people fizzing about me,” she says in her booming Irish brogue, explaining her plan to leave for Dublin the next morning and skip Immrama.
She’s wearing a light blue jacket over a navy sweater with a button that says “No War.” Her dog, Wurzel, has shed all over Dervla’s dark pants but she doesn’t care in the least. Just over a year shy of her 80th birthday, she appears fit and strong enough to ride her bike from Ireland to India, which she’d done almost a half century before as chronicled in her book, Full Tilt.
Many travel writers end up settling far from home, such as British author Pico Iyer who lives in Japan. Others, like Jan Morris of Wales, are so deeply of their place it’s hard to imagine them living anywhere else.
Dervla, as everyone in town calls her, belongs in—and to—Ireland. “I’ve seen so many really magnificent landscapes in so many different countries, but I suppose I just feel I belong here,” she said. “There have been so many changes in Ireland, many changes for the worse during the last 15 or 20 years, with quite unnecessary motorways here there and everywhere, but this little corner of west Waterford” is almost unchanged. “It’s a feeling for the landscape really, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” After traveling over rhododendron-blanketed green hills with their gentle streams and graceful trees to reach Lismore, I understand why Dervla feels so at home here.
We go on to talk about travel, writing, and her remarkable life: how at the age of 10, she sat on Round Hill, just over a mile from where we’re speaking, and vowed to pedal a bike to India. About how she took her tea from a mug at a time when ladies used a cup and saucer, her penchant for blue jeans, her decision to have a child out of wedlock at a time when that just wasn’t done.
After a couple of beers, I ask Dervla where the bathroom is. She extends an arm toward an untended and overgrown garden humming with insects. “Go wherever you like,” she says with a laugh. She couldn’t have made me feel more at home.
The interview complete, I go get Jackie at our hotel, a block away, and Dervla gives us a tour of her house, The Old Market, a collection of stone buildings surrounding a courtyard that served as Lismore’s marketplace for centuries. The market closed in 1909 and had fallen into disrepair.
Dervla bought it in the late 1970s and found it “in complete ruin, no roof and rubble piled up inside, earth and weeds growing out of the wall.” She shows me rusted wagon wheels that were left behind, an ancient scale and other decaying remnants from the market’s past.
In her study, which dates to the late 17th century, is a typewriter—not a computer—that she uses to compose her books. It’s covered by a Tibetan flag. She’s too humble to mention it, but later I learn the flag was a gift from the Dalai Lama. The guest room, where Michael Palin stayed while in Lismore, was once the market’s “piggery.”