“Academically I was backward because sheer laziness deterred me from using what was in any case a fairly limited intelligence. But my early sharing in adult problems and responsibilities had made me, emotionally, unusually mature.”
On May 22nd 2022, the world heard of the passing of Dervla Murphy, renowned Irish author and travel writer. To my shame I was not familiar with Dervla Murphy’s work and it was only in early 2022 that her writing was recommended to me. I picked up a copy of Wheels within Wheels as its autobiographical nature appealed to me. I wanted to know where Dervla Murphy began and what it was that made her into such an earnest and determined traveller and writer. Wheels within Wheels was first published in 1979 with John Murray. This edition was published by Eland Books in 2021 and is described by William Trevor of The Times as ‘an extraordinary book, reflecting an extraordinary woman and one of the great travellers of our time.’
Dervla Murphy was born on November 28, 1931. Her parents, Fergus and Kathleen Murphy, had moved from Dublin to the country town of Lismore in Co. Waterford, where her father took up the role of the local librarian. From the beginning the Murphy family was met with the scepticism and wariness of a rural community. Being from Dublin, they were considered as ‘foreigners’ – ‘As far back as the genealogical eye could see both their families were of the Dublin bourgeoisie‘. This attitude was to remain over the years. Kathleen and Fergus Murphy lived life according to their own rules, with a perspective that differed from the locals, isolating Dervla from the beginning.
“When my parents arrived in Lismore on their wedding day – being too poor to afford even a weekend honeymoon – they found a build-up of suspicions, resentment. The previous county librarian had been a popular local figure since the 1870s. He had recently reluctantly retired, leaving nine books fit to be circulated, and the townspeople were furious when an aloof young Dubliner was appointed to replace their beloved Mr Mills. A secure job with a salary of £250 a year had slipped from the grasp of some deserving local and they smelt political corruption. It mattered not to them that no local was qualified for the job, and what little they knew of my father they disliked. His family was conspicuously Republican – a black mark, not long after the Civil War, in a pre- dominantly Redmondite town.”
With brutal honesty Dervla Murphy looks back over her earlier life writing an extremely emotive book that leaves its mark. Her mother was diagnosed with a rare form of rheumatoid arthritis that eventually resulted in her being bedbound. At the age of fourteen, Dervla left formal education and became her mother’s main carer for sixteen years, as her father continued to work, keeping the family barely afloat. Through these formidable times, Dervla Murphy never lost sight of her dreams to travel. She did manage a few short European adventures, always with her bike, travelling economically and exploring off-beaten tracks along the way. She fell passionately in love with Spain on these trips but her big ambition was to travel to India on her bike, a dream that was shelved as long as her parents needed her. Dervla Murphy had a very rancorous relationship with her mother, eventually resulting in her own health being affected. It must have been extremely difficult for her mother having to be cared for 24/7 but her over-reliance on Dervla while clearly wrong was also, strangely, understandable. Dervla delves deep into this fractured mother-daughter relationship that was rooted in her early years, giving the reader an incredible insight into a home environment that was erratic, eccentric, and alternative.
“Some people imagined that my unusual upbringing was a result of being the only child of an invalid. But my mother’s mothering would have been no less odd, I feel certain, had she been in rude health with a family of ten. As a perfectionist, and a woman who saw motherhood as an important career, she approached child-rearing in what I can only call an artistic spirit. Given as raw material a newly conceived child, she saw it as her duty and privilege to form an adult who would be physically, mentally and morally healthy as intelligent rearing could make it. Physically she was completely successful. The other aspects of a child’s health are, alas, less amenable to maternal regulation”
Wheels within Wheels is an extraordinary reading experience. Dervla Murphy’s appreciation for life was just exceptional. Her no-frills approach to having such remarkable adventures should inspire us all to explore that little bit further beyond our comfort zones. Her book Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965) will be the next one on my reading list (see below) and, after that, I think I have more than another twenty to choose from. I have no doubt that parts of Dervla’s travel experiences are now outdated but the spirit of this indomitable and exhilarating individual shines through her incredible writing and spirited attitude. I hope by writing this review, that many of you too will now look up the back catalogue of this fascinating and exciting writer.
“Love leaves calm. Even when circumstances have given it the semblance of hate, this is so. In the tangled relationships between my parents and myself love was often abused, denied, misdirected, thwarted, exploited and outwardly debased. But it existed, and it left calm.”
(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)
Order your copy online here.