Four Brothers in The Ossau Valley, Day 3


We were hungry and empty when we ate on the unlikely named Col Deus Coïgts at 1068m. We’d climbed up from the villages of Louvie-Juzon and Castet on the valley floor at 400m and it took us four hours to get there. The woods around us as we ate, with tall beech trees reaching up imperiously, were a thing of inordinate beauty. A tree creeper climbed up a bark twenty metres away, doing his methodological thing.

It was cool for the most part on the climb, we were on the western side of the mountain, in its shadow. It wasn’t steep, the path switchbacked obligingly and when we made it up to the plateau, the sunlit green and blue expanse was a vivid expansive sight. Horses grazed incuriously as we walked by.

To get to the Col we had to find our way through a narrow unmarked pass. This was a sterner challenge but it turnout out to be my favourite stretch of walking the whole week. I think I loved it partly because we couldn’t see out way up and it wasn’t clear on the map, so it was adventurous. Nor were there any markers. And partly because we went from the grassy plateau into that mix of small trees (mostly hazel) and larger ones at the edge of a forest. And the path wasn’t well trodden so we were harried by briars and it was wet. An old pasture was overgrown with ferns, browned by cold now. But I think the hazels will win it over eventually if it’s not grazed by animals. I read somewhere the same is happening in the Burren.

Big raptors glided back and forth in their effortless grace over the high peaks beyond.

Then out into another plateau pasture with a view to the flatlands near Pau to the north and then into the final wooded climb to the Col and food glorious food. We had to put on our jackets while we ate – it is cold out of the sun this high.

The descent was steep and we were quieter with concentration. On the way up, John had quoted Yeats and we talked about Heaney’s effortlessly layered accessibility. We talked about loss and I told them of Claire Keegan’s belief that it was the basis of all literature. Dermot quoted the philosopher William James who said: “All religions and spiritual traditions begin with the cry: Help!”

We talked about Mary Oliver and when we were eating I read Emily Bishop’s poem One Art from my phone. It had been playing on my mind on the walk up and it often does when leaves fall – which is no disaster. Autumn is our time of loss, and we need to let the summer go as effortlessly as the beech trees let their leaves fall to the ground beneath them and to offer themselves up as nourishment for the darkness to come and the renewal to follow next year.

The loss of summer spent and the loss now of the four brothers’ week together (as I write) are no disasters. No disaster at all.

We were quiet boys indeed when we came back down into the afternoon heat, as the shadows of Louvie-Juzon lengthened. We drank the last of our water and sat into the car with relief.

We bought some rustic pâté to have before dinner and I cooked salmon with pasta and mushrooms. Food earned. Food needed. Wine needed, too and desired. The joy of being together.

We talked about meals at the table. John’s experiences, others. Restaurants in Cork, how lucky we are. The pointlessness of dessert after a big meal. The joy of food. We put on the radio on a phone and listened to Wales versus Ireland and James McClean’s goal. 1 – 0. Up a mountain in the South of France, we cheered. 1 – 0.

Here we are, in an ancient house, after our dinner, sitting around the stove after our punitive, restorative walk. After our 63, 61, 56 and 53 years spent. That’s over 200 years accumulatively lived. 200 years of experience. 200 years of love and loss. Joy and sorrow.

Still 1 – 0.

67 minutes on the scoreboard. Irish fans singing that East Galway song about small seabirds. 1 – 0. Ramsay on the ball a lot, more and more as the Welsh pressed. Kanu dangerous. 1 – 0. The dresser, the long table, the old dark wooden beams, glasses on the table, the stove dying down. The commentary from BBC Wales on the phone. 1 – 0. Charged down by James McClean. Serbia score and go top of the group again. Randolph takes a free kick. Irish fans are happy. Williams finds Lawrence. Keeper collects it. 1 – 0.

It’s all Wales. Johnny Williams throws it into the box. Wales pushing forward, Ireland playing down the clock. I’m getting texts from Brian in New York. Glenn Whelan is on for his 83rd cap. Kieran Clarke is booked for timewasting. Chester wide to Lawrence. McClean the goalscorer. Meyler the captain. Williams a little angled run. 10 minutes left. 1 – 0. It breaks for Kieran Clarke. Seven minutes left. 1 – 0. Ramsey shoots. Wales need something soon. Lawrence gives it back into the middle. Ireland sitting back. Corner to Wales.

Johnny Williams at the far post, bounces off an Irish defender. Two minutes to go. 1 – 0. Ireland oh-so close to robbing Wales. Ireland win a throw. Into time added on, five minutes of extra time. Straight into Randolph’s chest. Lofted into the box. Davis. Hennessy. Meyler. 1 – 0. It’s all over, that’s the final whistle. Wales out. Ireland into the Qualifiers.

We cheer. We draw breath. We toast our compatriots. We smile and sip our drinks.

Losing is no disaster, but winning is fucking great.


One Art by Emily Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


 Distance covered: 18km; Altitude gained: 1060m; Highest point: 1106m