Wednesday 23 January 2019

Love, joy, hate, anger, regret, tragedy: the amazing letters from your hearts

It has been a privilege to curate 'The Letter I Wish I Had Sent' series these past 40 weeks, writes Campbell Spray

Miriam O’Callaghan wrote to Eamonn Andrews, just as Leonard Cohen wrote his sad goodbye to his muse Marianne. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Miriam O’Callaghan wrote to Eamonn Andrews, just as Leonard Cohen wrote his sad goodbye to his muse Marianne. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Campbell Spray

'Even if this letter isn't published, thank you for reading it. It has done me a power of good to write it. Finally I have got that weight off my chest."

That was just one of the many comments attached to the absolutely masses of contributions which were sent in through the post or online to our The Letter I Wish I Had Sent pages, which have been running every week in this newspaper since the launch in LIFE magazine last June 4.

It has been my privilege to curate these letters for the majority of the last 40 or so weeks. I say "curate", as in terms of select and organise, instead of "edit", as we have preferred to let the words speak for themselves, and any adjustments have usually only been because of legal constraints.

The beauty of handwritten letters and envelopes, the intensity of what such correspondence means is powerful, tactile and awe-inspiring. The placing of the stamp, the sealing of the envelope and the walking to the postbox all have their special place in our lives. When you have finally posted it, you may have gone through thousands of emotions.

For others it will be the first words of the email to the eventual pressing of the 'Send' icon. I admit I probably prefer to use the handwritten letters - but all are treated with the same respect.

Many, many letters have been and continue to be received - and of course a number will never make it to print but every single one is read.

Leonard Cohen. Photo: PA Wire
Leonard Cohen. Photo: PA Wire

At times it hasn't been easy. The sheer emotion - sometimes anger, often love, occasionally tragic - that waits as envelopes are opened or emails scanned can almost be overwhelmingly powerful. I have had to go for quiet walks out of the office to deal with what I have read or secretly dab my eyes under the pretence of a sneeze.

There are letters of love to dead partners, epistles of hate to certain bullying teachers and priests, regrets to lost loves, thanks for inspiration and love, anger at abuse, and lots of questioning of despair and depression. One woman wrote to her murdered sister; another told of her thanks to the mothers of the children she had adopted; and a garda wondered how a boy had turned out - a boy he had arrested in 1963 and who had been sent to Letterfrack Industrial School.

Many did not want their names published but some did, like Elizabeth, who wrote to her dead husband: "...I loved you as a shy young bride in the bridal suite of our hotel. I can still feel the passion of our early married life when I came to you as a girl and you found the woman in me. I loved you down the years, the ups and downs of married life, the fun and laughter, the tears and traumas. I loved you as a young woman in my prime and as a mother and matron of 50 years.

"I loved you then and I love you now - and it's great to get this chance to tell you…"

Marianne pictured with her son Axel and Cohen in Greece in 1960
Marianne pictured with her son Axel and Cohen in Greece in 1960

And it wasn't only older people talking of love, regrets and anger. A young woman sent us a note detailing how hard it had been to put down her feelings on paper after the death in a car crash of two friends. However she had eventually finished it and now forwarded it to us.

It was a beautifully crafted and lovely handwritten epistle which I kept holding again and again as I felt the texture of the paper and the emotion that had been transmitted to it. Then there was the letter from a daughter to her late father which detailed his colourful life and then had an explosive last line of redemption and love.

The series, which was developed from an idea by Sunday Independent Editor Cormac Bourke, was launched in LIFE magazine by contributions from broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan, Francis Brennan and Stefanie Preissner, who gave the letters they wish they had written.

Miriam said she agonised over who to write to, but decided against another piece on her late sister and even her dad - so she wrote a letter to "a man I loved, who I worked with when I first went into TV. I meant to write to him before he died but I didn't realise he was so ill and I had a tiny baby at the time and had just become a BBC producer - excuses, excuses. I have always regretted not writing to him."

It was Eamonn Andrews.

At the end of her long letter thanking him for taking a chance with her - "a young Dublin solicitor with no TV experience" in the 1980s to work on This Is Your Life, Miriam wrote: "You minded me and for that I am eternally grateful. I have also learnt so much from you, not just about television, but about life and what matters.

"I watched closely the way, after each show, when we would all be having a drink and some food in the Green Room with the families involved and guests - some of them huge stars - you spent as much time talking to the waiters and waitresses serving us, many of them Irish, as you did with the biggest star.

"You never forgot who you were and treated everyone you met with kindness and respect. I try to live up to your standards every day of my life."

Last Christmas, in a letter that still brings tears to my eyes, Bernard Donohue wrote to his wife, who had died from a brain tumour earlier that year.

"Dear Mary, I hope you are at peace, you are the bravest, strongest, most thoughtful and, above all, the kindest person I've ever known. I am the luckiest man in the world to have you as my wife and best friend for the last 33 years."

And his beautifully handwritten long letter ended by saying that "Christmas will be good in heaven this year. Christmas will be good here, too - some time again. The boys send their love, we think of you every day."

Others wrote to animals. The notable campaigner John Fitzgerald wrote to a fox he had seen in his garden years ago. It was later ripped apart in a hunt but that animal had inspired his anti-hunt passion.

Some of the hardest letters to deal with were those that spoke of hardship, abuse and downright cruelty that people had suffered at the hands of people entrusted to care for them whether they be parents, teachers or priests... and sometimes bosses.

The letters painted a picture of a dark, secretive country that has scarred so many people. Hopefully by writing the letters they have got some peace at last and will inspire others to tell their story.

As I said, it has been a privilege to read and curate all those letters, some of which will appear in a special 36-page booklet which the Sunday Independent is producing in conjunction with An Post next Sunday. Some of the letters will be the eventual winners of the Dunnes Stores vouchers which we announced as prizes at the launch last June. But future letters will still qualify.

We will also reprint Miriam, Stefanie and Francis's original contributions (plus the reply to Stefanie from Copper Face Jacks). There will also be an original letter from author Marian Keyes and a message from Ryan Tubridy to his younger self.

It has been a bit of a personal journey through grief and love for me too.

Three years ago tomorrow my eldest son Daniel was found in his flat, very cold and dead from a drug overdose. He was 38. On the morning of his funeral I wrote a letter to him and placed it next to his body in the coffin. I told him of my love for him, the joy he had given but it also mentioned certain regrets, guilt and lost hopes.

I should have written that letter many times before. But at last I had done it - just like many a reader's posted letter and I found a modicum of closure amid the tears.

I was at boarding school for seven years and remember the keen wait every Monday morning for my mother's letter. Towards the end of her life she would often write again telling me of love, fears and concerns.

And then as I shuffle along the gods' waiting rooms I am reminded of the final letter Leonard Cohen sent to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, the subject of his song So Long Marianne: "Well Marianne, it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

"And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey."

As we now know, Cohen was close behind her.

Perhaps we all have a lot of letters to write before time runs out. Hopefully the Sunday Independent's series has both entertained and inspired people and given that important closure to others.

Keep the letters coming. Your stories are important. It is our pleasure, nay duty, to publish them.

Sunday Independent

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