“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.
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.”
Dervla lovingly shows us some her vast collection of books, including volumes that had belonged to her grandfather. Then she picks up a greeting card someone sent her with the words: “Beer is proof that God loves us… and wants us to be happy.”
No Crystal in Waterford, but Castles and Pubs Aplenty
The next day Mary, Immrama’s director, takes time out on the eve of the festival to show Jackie and me a slice of County Waterford. The crystal factory had shut down recently but we found plenty to see. The highlight is Ardmore, believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland, dating to the 4th century. We saunter among the tombstones and ruins of St. Declan’s church and gaze up at a round stone tower, almost 100 feet tall, that dates to the 12th century and was used to keep prized possessions out of the hands of marauding Vikings.
We walk a short segment of St Declan’s Way, an old pilgrimage route that goes from Ardmore to Lismore and on to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. We’re enthralled by rolling emerald hills and sea views, but by foot it would be a long way to Tipperary. We opt for lunch at the Cliff House Hotel, which has a Michelin-star restaurant overlooking Ardmore Bay. The misty views make me want to recite a poem by Yeats, or break out into a Van Morrison song.
On the way back to Lismore, we stop into a shop to meet Bernard Leddy, the mayor of Lismore (pop. 1500). The bible was translated into Gaelic in Lismore, he says, noting that in the Middle Ages the village was one of Europe’s top universities. Not only that, Marco Polo’s life story was translated into Gaelic and found tucked away in the walls of Lismore Castle. And Walter Raleigh once took refuge in the castle. “The streams of history run very deep through Lismore,” Leddy says.
Back in town, we pop into Blackwater Books on Chapel Street, a fine old shop with new and used volumes. We find the proprietor, Kevin Murphy, contentedly sitting on a stool, reading. “Lismore is where my heart is,” he says, telling us he moved here years ago and has an outsider’s appreciation for the place. Jackie, who works in marketing, pelts him with ideas about how to build his business. He looks at her in mild bemusement and thanks her for the suggestions. “I’ll write them all down,” he says, “and forget them.”
That night Jackie and I head to The Classroom, a vintage Lismore pub. I order a Guinness and as I’m waiting for it to settle, local resident Eddie Hanley walks over and says to me: “A Guinness has to stand, and when a customer isn’t a regular it has to stand longer.” Then I meet an Irish Joe the Plumber—he’s also the postman and tells me he carries his tools with him, fixing leaky faucets as he walks his mail route.
The band that Thursday night is an assemblage of guitars, Irish (Uilleann) pipes and an accordion. When they play the national anthem everyone stops drinking—including the young blokes playing poker—and rises to their feet. The bar’s owner, Willie Roche, says some visitors of Irish origin become so emotional hearing traditional music that it makes him cry. An accordion player, Roche says anyone who can play is welcome to join the band.
“We give them the venue to express themselves; life is about being happy,” he says, pint in hand. “This is our culture. The government comes down so hard on you if you sell drink, but they should promote something like this, then you’ll remember Ireland for what it’s worth.” A glimmer in his eye, he adds: “You know the definition of a gentleman? Someone who can play the pipes … but doesn’t.”
Gliding Down the Blackwater with Pico Iyer
The next day Jackie and I join Pico Iyer and his wife Hiroko for a float down the Blackwater. We board a battered wooden boat “for a journey that goes back 300 or 400 years,” says our poetic captain, Tony O’Gallagher. His first mate, a little dog called Pharaoh, hunkers down on top of the unused lifevests.
We float by majestic towers and tumbledown buildings as the sun and clouds play a game of hide-and-seek. “I love it — it’s a privilege to find something like this,” Tony says, relishing his job. “Better than fucking acting.”
That night we’re wowed by Iyer’s talk, his observations stated so eloquently and rapidly that my mind races to stay with him. The next morning I awake to hear verses ringing out over the town square and floating through our open window. It’s local poet Louis de Paor, who will later read to the accompaniment of Irish pipes, being broadcast for all to hear.
The rest of the festival is a whirlwind of serendipity. One night at dinner, Jackie and I end up at the same table as Jan Morris and her partner Elizabeth. On Sunday morning, we visit St. Carthage’s Cathedral and hear the priest say: “He who sings twice, prays.” How Irish.
Morris closes the festival in conversation with Iyer and Paul Clements, editor of a collection of tributes to the Welsh author called Around the World in Eighty Years. It’s everything one expects from Morris: witty, insightful, provocative, and most of all, fun.
Jackie and I have one more day left in Lismore. We tour Lismore Castle and gardens, then stroll along Lady Louisa’s Walk, which parallels the River Blackwater, verdant branches arching over our heads.
Overcome by the magic of the place but thoroughly unprepared, I ask Jackie to sit with me on a riverside bench. She comments on the birds, the trees, the yellow and purple wildflowers. I don’t have a diamond, but I do have a hematite ring, an iron band I’d bought a month before for 79 cents while on assignment in Alaska. Tears welling in my eyes, I ask. She says yes, yes, yes, as fervently as Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses.
Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place and wrote the text for the pictorial book Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya featuring photographs by Kraig Lieb. His travel writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way and Islands magazines, and the travel sections of the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. His story about rafting down the Grand Canyon in the wake of John Wesley Powell appears in The Best Travel Writing 2011.