There’s an overbearing need for discovery in the Irish veins, be it through necessity or restlessness, travel has always been important to the Irish. Without it, the Empire State Building wouldn’t have been built, The Argentine Independents wouldn’t have had a Chief Commander and thousands of miles of railroad would have lied unlaid across America’s Wild West. This yearning for exploration is no better seen in anyone than Dervla Murphy.
Dervla Murphy has been a touring cyclist and author of adventure travel books for over 40 years. She’s of the age of exploration, when Google didn’t allow us to explore the world at the click of a button. This was a time when isolation was a part of the journey, not a chosen luxury, where you’d have to turn off your phone, disconnect and get off the grid.
“Reviewers tend to describe my most exhilarating journeys as "adventures", though to me they are a form of escapism - a concept unfairly tainted with negative connotations. If journeys are designed as alternatives to one's everyday routine, why shouldn't they be escapist?” – Dervla in an interview with The Guardian
At 81 years young, Dervla is still living her life to the full. With cycling trips through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, living with Tibetan refugees in Nepal, mule treks through Ethiopia and trips through Cameroon, Yugoslavia and South America behind her, she doesn’t look like quitting any time soon. Never one to shirk a challenge, Dervla is currently working on a book about her experiences in Israel and Palestine, but alongside the epic cycle journey to India, one of her most challenging and exciting adventures was one which came about by accident.
In 2002, at the age of 71, Dervla planned to cycle around the Ussuriland region of Russia, but encountered a broken knee and torn calf a short way into the trip. Rather than abandon the adventure, Dervla merely reassessed. The cycle trip transformed itself into a train, plane and automobile escapade of self-discovery through Siberia, where Dervla, half incapacitated and barely able to walk would find hospitality, friendship and a vast culture in an alien, inhospitable terrain. The Siberian people would get to know her as an ‘Irish Babaushka’. In her novel Through Siberia by Accident we find proof of Dervla’s determination, resourcefulness and charm, and her unplanned journey just goes to show that adventure is where you make it, all you need a little bit of grit and courage.
But a true Irishwoman, the self-depreciation is strong in this one. Just try calling her brave, or courageous – “People just don’t seem to be able to get hold of it! I’ve nothing to be brave about!” But courage seems to come in her attitude to life, rather than her adventurous nature. “It’s being afraid when something actually happens but not being afraid that something might happen. That’s the difference.” It’s not exclusive to Irish writers, but we see it oh so often, that need to live life fully, to not dwell on the past or the future, but live in the present and face life singing.