Dervla Murphy_Hugh Thomson

Photo by Hugh Thomson

The Wandering Witness

“Bring night to your imaginings. Bring the darkest passage of your holy book.”
— Carolyn Forché, Prayer

The legend of Dervla Murphy generally begins in December 1941, her tenth birthday, when she received a bicycle and an atlas. She fell in love with both and, looking out from a hill near her home in Lismore, Ireland, she decided to cycle to India. Twenty-one years later, she set out for Delhi—cycling through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan—alone but for her bike and a pistol. The notes she took during this journey were turned into Full Tilt, a wonderful book that won her well-deserved recognition as one of the best travel writers of her generation. Many more books followed. About Tibet, Nepal, and trekking through Ethiopia with a mule. Then, after her daughter Rachel was old enough (5 years old, to be exact), she continued her work with a couple books about their travels in India.

But I would argue that the true legend of Dervla Murphy began in 1978, with the publication of A Place Apart, about cycling through Northern Ireland during the height of The Troubles. Using travel writing as a template, Murphy—whose father had been sentenced to three years in jail for hiding weapons and ammunition in his back garden before she was born—explored what at the time seemed to be an intractable conflict by simply speaking to people on both sides, hearing their stories, drinking with them, bearing witness.

There is a line of thought that discourages any link between art and politics—especially in the case of travel writing, which, more than most genres, is often read as escapism. But Murphy instinctively saw how suitable the form could be for putting a human face on vague ideas, and personalizing problems so large that they’re difficult to comprehend. She also saw that a disengagement with politics was a refusal to engage with a country or its people—something that would be anathema to her ideal of immersive travel.

In 1996, in an essay titled The Poetry of Witness, Carloyn Forché argued for the removal of the distinction between personal and political, calling for a more socially-minded poetics, where justice, rather than party politics, was the main concern. Twenty years earlier, Dervla Murphy had already discovered a way to make her particular form of poetry—travel writing—bear witness. At home, she wrote about the nuclear threat, and the racism that lead to the Handsworth riots in the UK. In East Africa, she journeyed through the areas hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic. She visited Rwanda shortly after the genocide, South Africa after apartheid, and the Balkans after the Yugoslav Wars. In her two most recent books, A Month By the Sea and Between River and Sea, she’s travelled to Israel, to witness the Isreal/Palestine problem first hand.

Ms. Murphy is now 84, and was still an avid cyclist up until about a year ago, when emphysema forced her to continue on foot. She still calls Lismore home, and that’s where we reached her by way of Skype and phone. She’s as charming and funny as you’d expect of any Irish granny. And as tough, intelligent and interesting as you’d expect of one of the greatest travel writers alive today.

– Chris Oke

Disclaimer: The following has been culled from a much longer interview. Some editing has been done for clarity, other edits have been made in a vain attempt to make the interviewer sound halfway as articulate as Ms. Murphy.


ERRANT: The first thing I wanted to ask you was about your previous book, A Month by the Sea, which was about your month in Gaza in 2011. Between River and Sea was based on your visits between 2008 and 2010. So is this, in a way, a prequel?

DERVLA MURPHY: I’ll tell you exactly what happened: When I went to Gaza, I was three-quarters of the way through [Between River and Sea], the long one, and I reckoned that based on my month in Gaza I would probably do two long chapters, which would come at the end of the book. But when I got home there was so much material to do with Gaza that the two chapters became nine, at which point my publisher said, “That’s much too long to add to the other book, I think we better bring this out now, bring it out first, just on its own.”

ERRANT: So would you say that they’re meant to be read together, as companion pieces?

MURPHY: Well, I suppose ideally yes because in [Between River and Sea] I give far more of the general historical background of the whole Palestinian/Israeli problem, than I do in [A Month by the Sea], which is specifically about the Gaza Strip. So ideally yes, I think one would read the long one first and then the one on Gaza. They’ve just been republished, the paperback editions are just coming out now, together, but I hadn’t thought about that, it would’ve been useful to put in a little note to tell people to read the long one first.

ERRANT: I’m sure that reading them in either order will be fine. Would you say that you were passionately concerned about the Palestinina/Israeli conflict before your trip, or was it the trip itself that made you aware?

MURPHY: Oh, it was the trip itself. I mean, obviously I was concerned and interested and puzzled by why the Palestinians were having such a hard time. But no, I wasn’t as passionately involved as I have since become.

ERRANT: Was there any single event that really brought the situation home to you, something that made you feel as though this was a topic that you had to pursue, devote so much time to and write about?

MURPHY: Not really, because it’s the overall impact of the Palestinians’ suffering really. It’s incident after incident, event after event, an accumulation rather than one outstanding deed or event.

ERRANT: Near the beginning of Between River and Sea, you talk about displaying your Irish passport so that they don’t mistake you for a compatriot of Tony Blair.

MURPHY: Ah, yes. He still is a major disaster in that area. He’s had to step down of course from his position of head of this phoney thing, The Quartet [on the Middle East]. It was always meaningless. But he’s remained involved, for his own profit, in the whole Middle Eastern area. He’s still very much on the scene.

ERRANT: Aside from that though, I’m wondering whether you feel that your identity as an Irish woman—with family members who were once associated with the IRA—gives you a unique perspective on the conflict?

MURPHY: Not at all unique, no. Just a different, Irish perspective. And I suppose helpful in a way to the extent that you can see things from both sides—in a way that very often the British or French or Americans can’t because they have the perspective of former imperialist powers or, as in the case of the United States, present imperial powers. Whereas I suppose Irish people as a whole have more of an underdog point of view.

ERRANT: Could you speak a bit more about comparisons between The Troubles and The Palestinian/Isreali conflict? In A Place Apart, you employed a similar technique, travelling around Northern Ireland in the 1970s and speaking to people on the ground about the issues they were facing. Would you say that that experience shaped the way you wrote about this issue?

MURPHY: Well there’s simply no comparison. Can you imagine the British Air Force, the RAF, flying to Derry, and deliberately bombing the homes of anybody suspected of IRA activism? And doing that repeatedly? It’s unimaginable, that the British would behave like that.

At the end of my South African journey—when would that have been? ’94, I suppose. One of my books, had just been published—I can’t remember which one exactly—I have so many children, I can’t remember when they were all born—but a book had just been published and my publishers had arranged for me to attend some event at a bookshop in Belfast to celebrate the publication. So as it happened, I flew straight back from Johannesburg to Belfast and of course, I’d been, all-together, about 18 months in South Africa, and I can remember the feeling of… really, extreme impatience. I mean, I know that people had a hard time in the North of Ireland during those prolonged troubles, but there just wasn’t any comparison with what the people had suffered in South Africa. I found myself thinking that all sides really should get a grip on this and realize how lucky they are. They’re not starving. Their health is looked after. They have roofs over their heads.

So that will give you an idea of what I feel about comparing the Irish to Palestinians. And the Palestinians, in many ways, are actually even worse off than the blacks under Apartheid. As indeed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has remarked on having visited the West Bank a few times.

ERRANT: Yes, I noticed that you often refer to “the apartheid wall.”

MURPHY: Well, I mean that’s what it is. And the awful apartheid roads where Palestinians can’t drive or walk. Although it’s obviously very, very different from South African apartheid.

My first month or so on the West Bank, I sensed that there was something inaccurate, it wasn’t right to talk about apartheid in Palestine, because the original version of it imposed on South Africa was all so clear and fresh in my mind, but the longer I was there, the more I realized that yes, this is apartheid. Another, different version. But not improved.

What I’m really working towards now is helping the campaign for the one-state solution. There’s absolutely no possibility now of the Palestinians having their own state, and increasingly they’re realizing that themselves. Like the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS Movement] campaign [which was inspired by anti-Apartheid campaigns], which I support. The whole thing, by the way, was completely started by Palestinians. It’s not any outsider’s idea. It’s the Palestinians’ idea, which is how any solution has to be begun.

What they’re asking for is simple: one person/one vote, and equality before the law. There’s nothing complicated about the demand. But, you know, I won’t live to see it. Maybe my daughter won’t. I would hope my granddaughters will live to see that solution.

ERRANT: If it’s so simple, why do you think that implementing this solution has taken—and will likely take—so long?

MURPHY: Can you imagine? Something very dramatic has to happen to change the Zionist viewpoint and their determination to have an exclusively Jewish state. And of course, when and if the one state solution comes about, everybody loses. The Zionists lose their entirely Jewish state. And the Palestinians lose their own independent state. That might help to balance things out. I mean, there won’t be a victory for anybody.


“Among the survivors of the German camps were people who would not have been alive were they not what they were—hard, mean and selfish—and what they have been through erased every remaining good quality from them.” — David Ben-Gurion, Isreal’s first Prime Minister, addressing an assembly of Labour Zionists in 1949

ERRANT: Your book goes a long way to point out how Zionists have misled people about the history of the land and their movement to take possession of it. The most shocking thing to me was their callousness toward Holocaust survivors. It’s unbelievable.

MURPHY: Absolutely. And at the same time, the Zionist regime uses the Holocaust globally so effectively. So many people believe that Israel was created as a state because of the Holocaust—you know, the Jews needed somewhere safe to live and all the rest of it. Completely overlooking the fact that half a century before the Holocaust, the take-over of the Palestinians’ land was being planned by the Zionists, beginning in the 1890s, and going on from there. I mean, everybody knows about the Sykes-Picot Agreement and then the Balfour Declaration, but the present Zionist regime in Jerusalem, they are just so skillful at using the Holocaust and the guilt that—quite rightly—effects European and Americans, because of our refusal to help, even though we knew—and when I say we, I mean the leaders of America and Western Europe, who knew quite well what was happening. They didn’t have to wait until the concentration camps were opened up after the war. These retched people were going around begging to be allowed into various countries and being turned away. That led to a huge build-up of guilt on our part, and, as I say, quite rightly too. Which of course makes it much easier for the Zionists to play the Holocaust card the way they do.

ERRANT: It’s fascinating history though. Like, for example, how secular the Zionist movement was originally. And that they were seriously considering Uganda as a place to build the Jewish state. It’s fascinating to think of all the “what ifs”. What would it have been like if they’d ended up in Uganda? It would’ve been incredible.

MURPHY: Well, not from the point of view of Ugandans.

ERRANT: True. But I don’t know if it would’ve been any worse than Idi Amin.

MURPHY: Yes, quite. Yes.


“When the irreligious [Theodor] Herzl first visited Jerusalem in 1898, he deplored ‘the craven attitudes of worshippers clinging to stones and the superstitious custom of thrusting written prayers between those stones.’”
– Between River and Sea

ERRANT: One of the things that struck me most about your book is the incredibly personal conversations that you have with people who you just seem to have met. There’s that old saying about polite company, that you’re not supposed to talk about religion, politics or money. You seem to discuss nothing but.

MURPHY: Exactly! And that’s what I’ve always done in every country—the first chance I get, whenever anybody speaks English, you talk about religion, politics or money. Because that’s where their problems usually are.

ERRANT: In both books, your point of view on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict really shows through, whereas many journalists try to appear unbiased—often to the detriment of the story. Was this a conscious decision? Or was this just the only way that you could have written the book?

MURPHY: Well, it was the only way I could have written it. It was really interesting though, within a few days of my getting there, before I’d been to the West Bank, I was talking to an Englishman who had spent at least half of his adult life in Jerusalem, and he said to me—because he had read a few of my books and he knew that reviewers had given me a reputation for being unbiased—he said, “remember: you can’t be both honest and neutral.”

ERRANT: You first travelled to Israel in 2008, so it’s been about seven years now. Is it normal for you to remain this involved? Usually you visit a country or region, write about it, and then head off to the next, no?

MURPHY: Yes. Absolutely. This is an involvement on a different level. And at my age, I consider that this could be a life-long involvement.

ERRANT: Are you planning any other journeys in the future, or perhaps to write more about Israel/Palestine?

MURPHY: Well, there will be more writing about it, but not quite yet. What I would like to do is focus on something we tend to overlook: the fact that the majority of Palestinians actually now live in their diaspora—in these huge refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and, until recently of course, in Syria. I would very much like to visit those. Because they should never be forgotten. It’s appalling to think that they’re into the fourth generation now, the babies in all of those camps are the fourth generation to be born into these… refugee dumps, you might say. It’s awful.

ERRANT: Often, whenever anyone is critical of Israel, there are accusations of anti-Semitism. Have you received any blow-back as a result of the two books?

MURPHY: Apparently I have, but most of it passes me by because I don’t get involved on the computer with the—what do they call it?—social media. My publisher’s assistant said the Zionists are coming at me from all angles. But I see absolutely no point in bothering myself with what anybody says about me, good or bad, especially on social media.

ERRANT: You haven’t had any bad experiences at readings? No one’s popped up to get angry with you?

MURPHY: Oh yes, there have been problems there with the local Zionists popping up and asserting themselves. In fact, in Cork the police had to intervene and remove a couple of them. And in London too, in Haringey there was a very nasty incident for the chap who was organizing that particular event. There were several speakers, like myself, who had all recently written books about some aspect of the situation. And the chap who organized it was in fact an American Jew who’s worked for years at the British Library. He was attacked so severely that he spent 24 hours in the hospital with a concussion. They really went for him.

ERRANT: Do you think that being a granny in your 80s has protected you from the worst of these sorts of attacks.

MURPHY: Oh, not from that lot. No. They’d skin their own granny.

ERRANT: Did being an older woman help you at all when you were on the ground doing your research, did it make people more receptive to your questions?

MURPHY: Oh, absolutely. And particularly amongst traditional people like the Palestinians. They have great respect for older people. White hair is a great advantage. Whereas in Europe now, and I suppose in America, people have very little time for you once you get to that sort of doddery stage, when you’ve lost half your teeth, white hair, can’t see anything without your specs… they just sort of elbow you aside. It’s the reverse with Palestinians. It’s the same in Africa and India. There’s a real respect for the older generation.

ERRANT: What sort of advice do you give to young travel writers.

MURPHY: The sad thing, and I think of this particularly in relation to my granddaughters, is that it will be very difficult now to travel as I did, because I most enjoyed my journeys on foot, in Ethiopia and the Peruvian Andes, and so on. In those days, when I was travelling, there were no motor roads and everything that goes with motor roads. That’s all changed completely. And the pace of change is quicker all the time.

What I do say to youngsters is for God’s sake don’t travel around in a pack with a Lonely Planet guide, with everybody going to stay at the same guest house and eating at the same restaurants and meeting only each other—the other backpackers. It really shocks me, half the time these kids don’t know which country they’re in. And they’ve actually told me they collect stamps in their passports, you know? That’s their idea of travelling. You need to think not in terms of seeing 15 or 20 countries, but choosing a particular country, and if it’s too big, a particular corner of a country, and really getting to know it and getting to know the people in it.

I also really encourage young people, and not so young people nowadays, to go and have their holidays on the West Bank. They can’t go to Gaza, but they can visit the West Bank. Because it means so much to the Palestinians. And that’s why it was so easy to collect material for those books, they really do value the opportunity to talk with outsiders to explain their viewpoint and what’s happening to them. That’s really one of the few ways, unfortunately, that we can help them. Just by going there and being with them.

ERRANT: Do you think you’ll have trouble getting back into Israel now that the books have come out?


ERRANT: That’s too bad.

MURPHY: It is. 

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