25 April 2018

Staying with Dervla

Posted by Rose Baring

Dervla Murphy, our Author of the Month for April, has made her name writing about trips to far-flung places, with nothing but a bicycle for comfort. As her publisher and editor at Eland Books Rose Baring reveals, Murphy brings this spartan attitude back with her when she returns home to Lismore, County Waterford. Read on for Baring's account of the pleasures – and pains – of staying with Dervla Murphy.

Dervla Murphy’s home is at once the most hospitable and the most inhospitable of places. As you would expect of a woman who has made a living from talking with anyone and everyone around the globe – and writing about it – good conversation, and friends, are plentiful. In summer there’s a table in the cobbled courtyard, hewn from a single tree trunk. Alcohol lubricates and conversation gambols from one topic to the next late into the warm, light night – the Catholic Church, events in Israel/Palestine, animal behaviour, news of mutual friends. In winter, things move indoors, where a small fire tries valiantly to heat a building to which the concept of insulation is a stranger. Only the conviviality is warm.

Dervla is oblivious to the cold. She sleeps in a converted cowshed, and eats one meal a day, at 5.30am. Homemade muesli and yoghurt gives way to home-baked bread and cheese, or sometimes sausages. From midday, the only sustenance is beer. Guests are housed in the pigsty, where the only gadget in the house, an electric blanket, has recently made an appearance. Before that, it was a question of piling on all available bedding and praying that the damp would be gone after a couple of nights. Never have I appreciated the charms of my perennially warm husband more. In the evening, guests are fed delicious stews while Dervla downs another pint. For a woman who shows so little interest in eating, she’s a very good cook.

There’s something reassuring about someone who lives as they write. In her books, Dervla is never bothered by where she will sleep at night, or what she will eat. What she cares about is what a place is like, why, and what the people there think and feel about it. How many eighty-year-olds do you know who would happily spend three months in a refugee camp, living in a single concrete room with a hole in one corner as a loo? For her, understanding the experience of the Palestinians in Balata Camp was her duty as a fellow human. Nothing in the world would make me want to change that, for out of it has come some of the most exhilarating and honest travel writing of the century. But I would sometimes like a bit more heat.

Dervla Murphy is our Author of the Month for April. Read more about her work here.