Northern Ireland

Seamus Heaney letter reunited with owner

Letter from Seamus Heaney to Sophia Hillan Image copyright Seamus Heaney
Image caption Upon re-reading the letter, Sophia Hillan says she was "struck by the kindly, friendly, paternal tone of it"

As Stewart Law rummaged around in a charity shop eight years ago he could not have dreamt of the bargain he had stumbled upon.

When he got home a letter fell out from between the pages of an old book.

It was addressed to a woman called Sophia Hillan, but to Mr Law's delight it was signed by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.

At the time he did not think it would be possible to find the owner.

Mr Law bought the book on Belfast's Lisburn Road, not far from where Heaney and his wife lived on Ashley Avenue during the late 1960s.

Fast forward a few years and thanks to the power of social media, the letter is returning home.

Believing the letter to be lost in transit, Mr Law came across it again on Monday when he was clearing out books to donate to the charity shop.

"I use Twitter a lot and I thought if I put it out, I would be able to find the owner," he said.

"Social media is different to what it was eight years ago. Within 30 minutes I was in touch with someone who knew Sophia."

He added that Heaney's personality comes through in the letter.

"You can just see such a sweet decent man, there were no airs and graces about him. It was just someone trying to help another."

'Almost like time travel'

The letter itself dates back to 1973 and tells of the beginnings of a warm friendship between tutor and scholar.

Alerted to the Twitter search by a friend of her son, Sophia Hillan was surprised and touched that someone went to the trouble of finding her.

"I read the letter and suddenly I was back in 1973 as I hadn't seen it since then."

Dr Hillan was finishing her postgraduate studies when she contacted her former tutor for a reference.

"I don't know how I missed it. It would've been usual for me to keep those things. It could've been in a book."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Heaney described his relationship with Sophia Hillan as "colleagues in our time and friends for a lifetime"

She said re-reading the letter was "almost like time travel - to hear the voice of a friend that had been silent for five years".

"I was struck by the kindly, friendly, paternal tone of it; which was characteristic of his treatment of all of us - his students."

Dr Hillan kept in touch with the Nobel laureate and they became friends when he brought her to work with him in Carysfort College in Dublin.

Image copyright Twitter/Sophia Hillan

While neighbours in Dublin, Dr Hillan also got to know Heaney's wife, Marie.

She once asked Heaney how she should describe their friendship and he replied: "We were colleagues in our time and friends for a lifetime."

"It is very important to get that first communication, the one I forgot about. To hear the sound of a voice that is still," she added.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995

The letter has surfaced just as an exhibition to honour Heaney is to be opened by Irish President Michael D Higgins.

The exhibition - Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again - is at the newly-created Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in Dublin.

The exhibition explores the life, works and legacy of Seamus Heaney, who died five years ago after a short illness at the age of 74.

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