Not everyone can say a famous poet once wrote them a letter, and rarer still if it’s someone as beloved as the late Nobel Prize for Literature awardee Seamus Heaney. The Irish poet and playwright received the Nobel back in 1995, and apart from writing was also a professor at Harvard University and Oxford University.
Back in 1973, Heaney typed up a letter for a certain Sophia Hillan from 25 Glen Road in Belfast. This letter, along with its envelope, however, has long since been without its owner. A man named Stewart took to his Twitter account last July 3 where he asked for help from Irish Twitter users. He said that he discovered the letter inside a second hand book he bought years ago.
“Don’t often ask for retweets but hoping Irish Twitter will do its thing,” wrote Stewart (@StewartL64). “Years ago I found this letter from Seamus Heaney inside a 2nd hand book I bought in Belfast. I wonder if the owner would like it back?”
Don't often ask for retweets but hoping Irish Twitter will do its thing. Years ago I found this letter from Seamus Heaney inside a 2nd hand book I bought in Belfast. I wonder if the owner would like it back? pic.twitter.com/Qax46RfVfp
His tweet showed a picture of the envelope of the letter, addressed to a “Miss Sophia Hillen” and contained a typewritten letter from Heaney dated “3rd September 1973.”
In the letter, Heaney seemed to be just talking about the mundane goings-on in his life, at one point mentioning a grant he received from the American Irish-Foundation. “I was thinking of applying for one of those jobs myself!” Heaney wrote to Hillan. “But the American-Irish Foundation gave mea grant for this year which will keep the wheels turning.”
Heaney then tells Hillan to contact him whenever she or another friend of hers, Maeve, are around. “If ever you or Maeve are in the vicinity, give us a call. Anglo-Irish literature is thick on the ground here…” Heaney wrote, revealing that he and Hillan are most likely good friends.
It didn’t take long for the letter to reach its rightful owner, as Stewart tweeted that same day, saying, “Update, in less than thirty minutes I think we have found the owner, and are contacting family right now. Special thanks to @QUBSC (Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections).”
Update, in less than thirty minutes I think we have found the owner, and are contacting family right now. Special thanks to @QUBSC
Meanwhile, it turned out that Hillan, too, is a fellow author herself, and was studying Irish Studies during the time of the letter’s conception. Hillan replied to Stewart’s tweet that same day where she confirmed her identity.
“Yes, it was to me!” Hillan wrote. “I am the Sophia Hillan who was at Irish Studies and would love to have it back. I am pleased and touched that the finder thought to contact me. Seamus was a kind and loyal friend until his untimely death.”
Heaney passed away in August 2013 at the age of 74.
Yes, it was to me! I am the Sophia Hillan who was at Irish Studies and would love to have it back. I am pleased and touched that the finder thought to contact me. Seamus was a kind and loyal friend until his untimely death.
Another netizen, in the name of Maxim (@MaximBarnett), noticed something peculiar in the letter. They wrote, “Did Seamus misspell your name as ‘Hillen’? Or have you changed it since? Not suggesting anything by the way, just curious!”
Hillan wrote back, “He did misspell it that time; but many do. He didn’t later.”
Hillan has long retired from her job as Assistant Director of the Queen’s University Belfast Irish Studies, where she served for ten years, from 1993 to 2003. Her latest book, “The Way We Danced”, released in 2016, is a vivid historic novel that sees its heroine journey through 20th-century Europe, from Belfast to Rome and Germany. JB