A happy story for Seamus Heaney day

Twitter reunites long-lost letter from the Nobel Prize winning poet and its owner

Serendipity. Karma. Timing. Someone watching. Hope and history rhyming.

On the eve of Listen Now Again, the Seamus Heaney exhibition curated by the the National Library which President Michael D Higgins is opening today, comes a perfect story, emerging from another spare and concise use of words (that is, Twitter, rather than poetry).

Yesterday, @StewartL64 [“Left Wing, vegan, Labour Party Member & Corbyn supporter] tweeted: “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?”

The letter he found, dated September 3rd, 1973, was written on a manual typewriter by Seamus Heaney, from Glanmore, the cottage in Wicklow where he often wrote, to a “Dear Sophie”. A short, warm note about a job application and urging Sophie to “give us a call” if she is in the vicinity, it also mentions “Ango-Irish literature is thick on the ground here – the cottage was once a forester’s lodge on the Synge estate, but I think J.M. was a poor relation”.


Who is this Sophie who lost the letter?

A burst of retweeting and speculation and back and forth later, and within half an hour, Sophie was found (with “Special thanks to @QUBSC” – Queens’ special collections).

And yes, she would love it back, thank you.

Sophie is Sophia Hillan – @HillanSophia, “Writer, reader, lecturer, former Assistant Director of QUB Irish Studies (1993-2003). Long retired from the job, but never from the work, in fact or fiction.”

After contacts from various directions, the hitherto unidentified Sophie tweeted: “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.”

@StewartL64 reacted “how lovely to be able to find you like this. Of course you can have it back”, later commenting “A happy ending, really made my morning.”

Some tweeters asked which bookshop he had bought the book in, many years before, and while he could not remember the exact one, he describes “a little charity shop past the police station towards Lisburn on the Lisburn Road, Belfast. Think it might have been a Catholic Church charity shop of some kind.”

From the Twitter thread we learn @StewartL64 thought he had lost the letter after a few house moves but was sorting through some books yesterday and it turned up. He was hesitant to repost what is a private letter but “it’s so sweet, and contains no serious personal information”, so after finding the letter again many years after coming across it in the second-hand book, “my first thought was the power of social media these days”.

And so it proved. For Sophia Hillan it was “Such a rare and lovely thing to happen, forty-five years later.”

Listen Now Again is open to the public from Friday, July 6th at the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre, in the Bank of Ireland College Green (Westmoreland Street entrance) NLI.ie