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An Post finds recipient for letter addressed to ‘Artist in Wool’

Helle Helsner had featured in Irish Times but sender wasn’t sure exactly where she lived

Aidan O’Reilly wanted to order a blanket of Donegal wool from Helle Helsner.

During lockdown, I have often wondered which I love most: An Post or the internet? The former has brought surprises, catch-up cards, treats – and the occasional bill; while the latter has let me escape, explore and find out more. While digital communications are often pitched as the enemy of good old-fashioned letter writing, it’s hard to imagine life without either, and sometimes they can come together to make something beautiful happen.

In March of this year, after realising how much my nice yellow mug cheered me up, I asked a group of people to pick the thing that did the same for them, to share with Home and Design readers. Emily Connell of Ballinspittle’s Chalk & Easel chose her Donegal wool blanket, by Helle Helsner, which she described as a “beautiful handknit hug”. We had lovely feedback from the piece, as some people evidently looked fondly at their treasured objects, while others began to dream of new ones.

And then a letter arrived. Or rather, PJ Hunt, relief postman covering the Ballinspittle district, received a letter addressed simply to: Helle Helsner, Artist in Wool, Ballinspittle. He didn’t know the name.

Postman PJ Hunt enlisted the help of his wife, Marion, in the search for an address for Helle Helsner.

“You get a few letters from time to time,” says Hunt. “You just don’t know who they’re from. We do our best, but we don’t always find everyone.”

Not one for giving up, Hunt brought the letter with him when he went home for lunch.

“I thought ‘Artist in Wool’ might mean something to my wife, Marion, and daughter Melanie. So the next thing, out came the computer, and my daughter found her.”

Helle Helsner with one of her blankets. Photograph: Jakub Walutek

Helsner, who lives further west, takes up the story: “I work as a sculptor, but I like to knit. I like to have my hands busy. I call myself the CEO of Knitflix. Anyway, this is the thing, I got a phone call from this guy, and he said ‘I’m the postman...’, so I told him ‘I’m up in Patsy Healy’s old house’ – that’s how you find people round here.”

The letter proved to be from Aidan O’Reilly, asking for a Donegal wool blanket.

“I was born in Killybegs, and I am around this life since 1936. I am in no hurry,” he wrote. “Knit at your own speed.”

Delighted, Helsner got stuck in.

“I got in touch with Aidan, and we had a chat. The wool comes from up around Killybegs, and I’ve been working on it ever since. It’s ready to go in the post tomorrow. Aidan sends lovely letters,” she adds, saying “I love that the postman made an effort.”

O’Reilly is ready too.

“I live in Dublin now, but I’m originally from Donegal. I go back there, to pick up my Irish. I wanted a blanket to throw over a bed, but she also mentioned throws and shawls. I tense up with choice,” he admits, so he left the colour to Helsner. “I swim in the sea every day, will I use the blanket for that? That’s what I’ll do.”

He tells me about his daughters, also now due their own Helsner blankets.

“I have an affinity with the idea of them. Of Killybegs, and of Donegal wool. It pulled on my heartstrings.

“An Post is brilliant,” he concludes.

“They are fantastic. Winter and summer a postman called Ken walks down my lane wearing his shorts. He never misses a delivery, he knows everyone’s name. He looks out for everyone, they’re a great tribe of people.”

It’s a lovely thought: that as we’ve all been isolated in different ways, there are still hidden threads connecting us – whether digital, woolly, or bearing a stamp and a postmark and whatever sort of address.