It’s the height of an Irish summer – that is, the sun is shining and it’s about 25°C in July – when I drive into Lismore in the far west of Waterford. I come in over a bridge with such a spectacular view of the town’s main sight, Lismore Castle, at once forbidding and exquisitely elegant, that I want to stop the car and dive into the cool water, just as the locals are doing. But there’s no time – Murphy is down here at 5am every summer morning swimming and it’s now 10 to three. My appointment is at 3pm, at the author’s home, a ramshackle farmhouse (“I’m next to the Credit Union”).
I needn’t have worried about not finding her, as the first man I meet on the street says: “Aye, I’ve seen her this morning, and she’s on fine form.” Given that Dervla Murphy is now 82 and is about to go into hospital for major shoulder surgery, this is slightly unexpected and almost disconcerting. Surely Ireland’s most famous travel writer has mellowed in old age?
Not, as they say, at all. Welcoming me into a tumbledown courtyard, around which is the home she grew up in, Murphy sits me down at a wooden table and offers me a ginger beer. Dressed in dark baggy clothes and slightly stooped, she sports a small badge saying “Gaza: Stop the War” and a defiant smile. She’s just published a book on Gaza, A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza, based on a summer she spent on the Strip in 2011. A further book on the West Bank is still in progress. “The West Bank book would have been finished by now, but for this damned thing,” she says, referring to her shoulder, which is being replaced the following day in London. “It’s so painful it keeps me awake at night. That’s one of my real weaknesses – if I can’t sleep properly, I can’t concentrate.”
And Dervla Murphy is a woman with few weaknesses and who has slept in conditions most of us would balk at – European youth hostels and factory dorms, Indian pagodas, in Kurdish coffeehouses and Iranian teahouses, in Afghan mud huts, police barracks and out in the open. In one of her best lines from Full Tilt, her first book, published in 1965 and still in print, when she awoke in her doss-house in eastern Turkey to the sight of a Kurdish man standing over her, she wrote simply: “My gun was beneath the pillow and one shot fired at the ceiling concluded the matter.”
That was her only sinister brush with death or serious incident in 50 years of travel writing, her trips to the Gaza Strip and West Bank included. “Actually, I can’t really think of anywhere safer for the traveller,” she says. I mention some people might worry about being kidnapped. “Well I suppose if you’re given to worrying, you might be worried,” she says. “I never worry about things until they happen. I’d be very worried if I were kidnapped but until I’m kidnapped, I don’t even think about it.”
And while Murphy was initially critical about the lack of material development in Muslim societies 50 years ago in Full Tilt, her perspective changes over the course of the book and her travels in Afghanistan: “I am humbled and astonished by the tolerance of Muslims, who so easily accept the fact that my standards differ from theirs, yet give me no feeling of being regarded as different on that account.”
Now, in her latest book, she’s empathetic, and honest about her reasons. “It’s partly a feeling of guilt as a European that we actually allow this situation [in Israel and Palestine] to continue.” She details EU protest measures against the settlements and references Benny Morris, an Israeli history professor and author, as a “disappointing revisionist”.
A Month by the Sea isn’t life-affirming, humorous or even particularly colourful, as her 20-or-so other travel books have been; instead, it’s a rather bleak look at a place in a bleak situation (though her tortuous exit from Gaza is a brilliant description of visa bureaucracy that will ring true with travellers everywhere).
I wonder why, given the obvious parallels with Northern Ireland – with the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century and a long history of colonial abuses – Murphy doesn’t exploit this. In fact, perhaps because she doesn’t share the outsider’s sense of guilt in relation to Ireland, she puts them in “entirely different categories”. She says it’s because the colonisation of Ulster and Munster began 400 years ago, making the situation less clear-cut than Israel/Palestine; she adds: “One of the big differences between Ireland and Israel is that I never had any problem looking at the two sides in Ireland.
“That is, not only looking at but seeing both sides. And actually, even in South Africa among the Boers and Afrikaaner farmers in the Transvaal I could feel a certain sympathy for their cause, horrendous though the basis for apartheid was. None of this can I see in Israel.”
Murphy’s previous travel books emphasise the commonality between people and the harmonising effects of travel, but she feels that to have applied the same open-mindedness would have been misleading. “I think it’s wrong to say, ‘I’m going to be neutral about the Palestine thing … I’m going to be objective and balanced.’ The situation is so appalling that I think it would be immoral to be fair, neutral and balanced. That is not to say that there aren’t very many splendid Israelis who are siding with the Palestinians and all sorts of groups – the rabbis, lawyers, doctors, independent groups against demolitions, the brave women who go and stand at checkpoints defending the Palestinians against the arrogant little adolescent soldiers. They are all there and I bring them out as much as I can in my West Bank book but they are all very small groups and they have no effect.”
Instead, as Murphy explains in the Gaza book, she supports the policy of forcing a one-state solution upon Israel through the policy of a civil rights struggle from within the Palestinian community and BDS – boycott, sanctions, divestment – from outside. Murphy compares the situation in the West Bank to apartheid South Africa: “At first when I heard Palestinians talking about an apartheid state I thought we had to be very cautious using that word. I spent a long time there [in South Africa] looking at the whole scene during the transition period and I was very wary of using that word in relation to Israel and Palestine, but the longer I lived there I saw that it is justified as long as you point out the differences and don’t equate them precisely.
“Driving along the West Bank there were roads for the settlers and roads for the Palestinians. Israel itself is not an apartheid state but the 20 per cent Arab population there get a fairly raw deal.”
In A Month by the Sea Murphy talks to everyone, liberal and Islamist, Fatah and Hamas, rich and poor, men and women, and lives, eats and rails along with them on the subjects of corruption, injustice and other negative situations which she says are the result of Gaza’s isolation, poverty, overcrowding and desperation. At one stage, she even crawls through one of the tunnels under the border with Egypt. What, thankfully, also comes through is a staunch admiration for the people’s survival, defiance and strength in the face of attacks such as Operation Cast Lead, which killed around 1,500 people in 2009.
Boiling away under all of this is Murphy’s anger at the way Muslim societies have been interfered with by the West. The intervention in Afghanistan post-September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 she condemns as “utterly outrageous”, aided by a “general control of the media which wasn’t there 50 years ago”.
Murphy also continues to rail against “our western late capitalist consumer society”.
“It’s completely bonkers. It’s fine for the people who are making the millions but for the rest of humanity either in Europe or beyond it’s just exploitation. All we hear is yapping about the ‘growth society’ and ‘we must grow our economies’. Says who?”
Technology also comes in for criticism.
“I was in Jaffa in this early 19th-century house, a huge mansion that would have belonged to some rich Palestinian merchant. It had a big drawing room and around the walls there were rows of computers and my fellow travellers all of course young or youngish came in and immediately went for the computer. And they got on to their mothers and fathers, cousins and lovers and I was wondering when I could get into conversation with any of them. Twenty years ago we would all have been talking to each other, exchanging experiences, writing letters and advising each other on what to do and where to go, discuss what we’ve seen and I said to myself why do they bother leaving home if the first thing they have to do in the evening is communicate via a computer? It is really sad because you really feel they are missing out on something. They never are going to travel in the true sense of the word.”
And with that I turn off my Japanese dictaphone and gather up my notebook and iPod, which I explain is useful when travelling because of the amount of music you can carry, and leave Dervla to finish writing her next book. Because until that’s done, there will be no more travelling.