There were four of us. We were old friends; old in the context of the length of our friendship and, without being coy, old in the arithmetic of our years. We had met in An Oige (The Irish Youth Hostel Association), that wonderful youth organisation which encouraged young people to discover their own country (and then other countries) by providing simple accommodation for them on their travels. It was all a long time ago.
An Oige was a strictly under-your-own-steam movement, with emphasis on the healthy activities of walking and cycling. We walked in the hills, climbed in the mountains, cycled the highways and byways, and we did it in the company of other young people, and established a lifestyle which enriched all our lives.
The four of us are the sort of tag-end of a group, whose friendships were formed in that great freemasonry of youth, and which took us ultimately to many places outside of our own country. Although, we four, still live in Ireland, we are scattered, but we meet twice every year, to have a meal, have a walk, and have a talk.
That was how we came to be in the beautiful valley of Glendalough in County Wicklow on a late September day this year. And that is where we met an unforgettable woman.
While all of us still walk the hills, the distances have been shortened and the gradients have been modified, and our meetings are always preluded with details of responding exactly (and often with boring details) to the polite question: â€œHow are you?â€ To date, there have been a number of bodily embellishments. Between us, there is a valve or two, a few stents, and several artificial hips and knees.
Pat, now living in Dublin, had been discharged from hospital three months previous to our meeting, having had his second spare-part installed - a knee joint replacement. He was tentative. Although he had been walking well around his local streets, he wasnâ€™t quite sure about his endurance for even a moderate walk on a roughish surface. He would walk for as long as he felt comfortable and then make his way back to the car-park, he said.
It was a beautiful day. A noon-day golden September sun lit in the valley-slopes. The lake reflected a very blue sky. The trees were tinged with the colours of early Autumn. There was a very gentle breeze.
If that description mirrors a chocolate-box cover, then that was how it was. Sometimes even chocolate-box covers have an authenticity. Put simply, the beauty of the location, the warmth of the sun and the company of old friends, made it a day to remember.
So we walked along happily above the lake-shore, laughing and talking, stopping and staring, telling each other that we were very fortunate to be still walking, still talking and still laughing.
We had just come out of the trees, and the track now led onwards into the upper valley and the lower slopes and our final destination. Pat, delighted with his progress, said that perhaps now was the time for him to have a rest, in deference to â€œthe kneesâ€ Perhaps he should not push them too far. After all, this was a sort of trial run for the mechanics which now function in the place of his old joints.
So we left him, sitting on a sun-warmed rock, and three of us took the now undulating track and walked into the rocky terrain which, in its wildness, contrasted so much with the sylvan character of the outer valley. We walked upwards to the old mine-shafts, where the rough track petered out. We recalled that, once upon a time, and it didnâ€™t seem so very long ago, we would not be standing here looking up, but on top of the ridge, looking down.
Having allowed ourselves the required dose of happy-sad nostalgia, we started our journey downhill, and back to the rock from where we had parted from Pat. We expected that, by now, he would have gone to the car. But, when we came in sight of the rock, he was still sitting there, and had in fact gathered some company around him - a man and a woman who were sitting on an adjoining rock. We could hear the laughter almost as soon as we saw them. â€œHeâ€™s probably telling them his hoary old jokes,â€ we told each other, and then consoled ourselves that, heard for the first time, they would not sound quite so hoary.
There were introductions when we met. The couple - husband and wife - were English, and were spending a few days in Ireland. We talked. Yes, they were enjoying themselves. Yes, the countryside was spectacular. Yes, the weather was very good. And now they were going to continue their walk into the valley and we told them about the track and the mines and St. Kevin and his bed. We did the usual soft-sell in anticipation of the forthcoming Gathering.
We were about to part, and the woman and man stood up and walked on to the track, and were just waving a farewell, when Pat felt compelled to them them why he had been sitting on the rock. â€œItâ€™s the knees,â€ he said, and he started to recount his latest experience of orthopaedic surgery - the details of which we, his friends, were already familiar. â€œThis is my first day in breaking-in my new knees,â€ he told them and so saying, he bent down and patted his latest artificial replacements.
Then, the woman did the most extraordinary thing. She, too, bent down, pulled up both legs of her trousers and said, with a great big smile: â€œItâ€™s some time since I broke-in my legs,â€ and she revealed the steel and straps of two knee-length artificial legs. Waving a cheery goodbye, she and he, continued their journey into the upper valley of Glendalough.
Gobsmacked is not a word I like, but it is difficult to find another word to describe our shock, our amazement, our admiration. Somehow, the already golden day had become more glowing. The countryside more beautiful. Friendship more precious. We had met an unforgettable woman, who was walking in a valley in Irish mountains, and she was without the sort of legs that the rest of us accept as par for the course.