Book Review: Wheels Within Wheels

Wheels Within Wheels by Dervla Murphy, Penguin Books, London, 1981.



This is a wonderful book when seen from any one of a number of different angles.  It is a witty and captivating autobiography; an account of life in a loving, but very, very odd family; a slice of Irish history and society in the early 20th Century; an entirely original, ‘coming-of-age’ story; and the tale of the making of a cyclist and one of our most treasured travel writers. In this review I will concentrate on this last angle.

Dervla Murphy started cycling as a very young girl in rural Ireland.  From the start she instinctively saw her bike as a vehicle to transport her to freedom.  At 10 she took on her first 50 mile round trip: armed with an emergency £1 from a doting, but controlling mother, to pay for an hotel room if she should be exhausted on her arrival at the half way point.  Soon, she was taking on 120 mile days in the high sierra in Spain, overloaded with gear and luggage: she makes the point that learning that a medium rucksack can support a 6 month trip is a lesson that takes time to sink in.  In this sense all her early trips seem a preparation for her truly ground-breaking trip from Ireland to India, the account of which she would publish as, ‘Full Tilt’ – the book that secured her reputation as exceptional cyclist, woman and writer alike.

However, all these early trips share a common background in her extraordinary relationship with her parents and wider family.  Her father was an Irish nationalist, rural librarian and scholar – and an auto-dydact for sure.  Her mother was equally able and intellectual, but increasingly debilitated by a series of crippling illnesses.  From both parents came a love of books and music: from her father a other-worldliness and a determination to write and from her mother a steely determination to prevail and to be practical.   More fundamentally still, however the family instilled a positive determination to aspire and achieve in the face of disadvantage and hardship and a less positive need to escape the spirit-destroying drudgery of daily caring for an invalid and controlling mother.  Over 16 years these positive and the negative energies propelled the author towards her marathon trip to India and then beyond.

Life with her parents in rural poverty also spurred the author to prepare for her trips and her writing.    Reading and research are routine expectations and pleasures. Feelings and emotions are things to be controlled and bettered by reflection.  Language-mastery is a bonus. Diary-keeping is a routine on trips.  Word-smithing is a craft or art and pleasure.

To repeat, this is a wonderful book, a pleasure and an education. The author is a one-off and a treasure.

A captivating book by a woman who shaped her future and found her voice, first by documenting her roots, then escaping them, before finally reclaiming them on her own terms.  An exceptional book by an extraordinary woman: this is a wonderful book, a pleasure and an education. The author is a one-off and a treasure.

Wheels Within Wheels by Dervla Murphy, Penguin Books, London, 1981. Recommended with 5 stars.   Available here from Amazon.


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