Development & Alumni Relations Office 


06 December 2018

The Cocktail Hour (Arlen House), a new collection of short stories written over 40 years by former Queen’s staff member and English Language and Literature graduate, Dr Sophia Hillan, (BA 1972, MA 1974, PhD 1987) has been published by Dublin's Arlen House Press.

Launched last month (8 November) at a special event at St Dominic's Grammar School in Belfast, with an introduction by internationally bestselling novelist Catherine Dunne and a reading by special guest Monaghan-born author and Aosdána member, Mary O’Donnell.

Dr Hillan first saw her work published in the 1970s by Sam Hanna Bell and David Marcus, but waited 20 more years before submitting a short story entitled The Cocktail Hour for the Royal Society of Literature's inaugural VS Pritchett Award in 1999, where it came runner-up to John Arden. The story, which gives its name to this latest collection, was later published in 2005 by Dublin editor, David Marcus, in his Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories.

Sophia Hillan, known to many of her friends as Sophie, is a writer, lecturer and former Assistant Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University (1993-2003), after which she was the first Academic Director of the University's International School in Irish Studies (2003-05).

The editor of In Quiet Places: The Uncollected Stories, Letters and Critical Prose of Michael McLaverty (Poolbeg, 1989), Sophie is the literary executor of the McLaverty Estate with his daughter Maura Cregan, and author of The Silken Twine: A Study of the Works of Michael McLaverty (Poolbeg, 1992), and The Edge of Dark: A Sense of Place in the Writings of Michael McLaverty and Sam Hanna Bell (Academica Press, 2000).

Though officially retired ‘from the job, not the work’ as she has been quoted as saying, Dr Hillan has published widely since leaving Queen’s. her work has been commissioned and broadcast by the BBC, and she is the author of May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland (Blackstaff, 2011) and of two novels, The Friday Tree (Ward River, 2014) and The Way We Danced (Ward River, 2016).

Fellow graduate and former member of Queen’s staff, the late Seamus Heaney was a major inspiration on Sophie’s life and writings. Speaking to Gail Bell in the Irish News last month, Dr Hillan described how she had first met the future Nobel Laureate when she came to Queen’s to study English in the late 1960s.

At first her tutor and lecturer, later they became teaching colleagues at Carysfort College of Education in Dublin where thier two families were neighbours, and formed a lifelong friendship.

"Seamus was an exacting and considerate teacher," she recalled. "But you had to work hard to gain an A from him – if you got one, you knew you had earned it.

“When we taught together in Dublin, I was always very aware of his very high standards, but also the way he brought out the very best in his students."

Earlier this year Sophie was identified as the intended recipient of a 1973 letter from Seamus Heaney which had been discovered in the folds of a book purchased by a Belfast man in a second-hand charity book shop in 2010.

Writing of the title story in The Cocktail Hour, Gail Bell describes it as a ‘dream-like look into the life a couple alone in the darkness of a New York night’ where the unnamed characters find themselves in the financial district of New York, ‘in eerie, nothing silence’.

"I was writing about a different America at the time," Dr Hillan says. "I had no idea at the time that I was describing another America; a country that was to change forever."

"People ask me what happens to the couple in The Cocktail Hour [the final story in a collection of 10] and my response is simply, 'I don't know'.

"My ending could be different from yours. I like some mystery so that people can walk away from a story thinking of various possibilities. I would like readers to feel like they've been somewhere else for a few hours; somewhere that has been a little thought-provoking; a place of meditation,” she added.

The Cocktail Hour (Arlen House, 2018) is now available from Dubray Books, Hodges Figgis and, in Belfast, at No Alibis, Waterstones and Books, Paper, Scissors.

Dr Hillan is scheduled to appear on Marie-Louise Muir’s The Arts Show (Radio Ulster, 6.30pm) on Thursday 13 December.

To submit graduate news items, or for general enquiries about this news story, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Queen's Development and Alumni Relations Office – tel: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.


Back to Main News









Top of Page