An inky-black night on the Beara Peninsula in south-west Ireland in February. Heavy rain, high winds, mist hanging low on the hills. In a house on the edge of the remote village of Allihies, a tall 63-year-old Englishman is reading from his latest collection of poetry.
In some ways it is an everyday domestic scene, a convivial Saturday gathering of friends and neighbours who have come together for a few drinks and a spot of entertainment. But as the poet launches into his next recital, a cameraman scurries to a standing position to get a better shot.
He is a film-maker called Colm Quinn who is working with legendary Irish director Jim Sheridan on a documentary series that features the poet – Manchester-born Ian Bailey, who moved to Ireland in 1991 and has lived nearby in West Cork ever since.
socialit,e Sophie Toscan
The reason that the film-maker is there is also the reason why many in the local community have deliberately stayed away.
For almost a quarter of a century Bailey has been an infamous figure in Ireland, the prime suspect in the country’s most notorious unsolved murder – the brutal killing of 39-year-old French TV producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Bailey’s fame became international after the case was picked up and covered in West Cork, an award-winning 2018 podcast, which Time magazine called ‘one of the 50 best in the world’.
A former journalist who has strenuously, if sometimes vaingloriously, protested his innocence, for the past decade Bailey has been, according to his solicitor, ‘a prisoner in a country called Ireland’, a man found guilty in absentia last year in France and given a 25-year jail sentence.
He is a central and controversial character in a mystifying case that has ruined lives; fed a sprawling grapevine of gossip, rumour and conspiracy; and tested the limits of European law and diplomatic relations.
Even by the standards of West Cork, an area known for its rugged beauty and wild Atlantic coastlines, the tiny townland of Dreenane is exceptionally isolated and difficult to find. A narrow country lane six miles west of the nearest town, Schull (pronounced Skull; population 700), leads you across fields and farmlands to a rocky hillside and an elevated two-storey converted white farmhouse.
There are two other houses nearby, but no street names or numbers, and the place is not always marked on maps. You would never just come across Dreenane; you have to know it’s there. Or have a reason for going.
A year after the assassination of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the police stand guard in front of the house where the crime took place, in Mizen Head in County Cork in Ireland
Credit: Getty Images
It was here, at the foot of the 100-yard laneway that leads up to the house, at shortly after 10 on a cold Monday morning just before Christmas in 1996, that the battered and bloodstained body of Sophie Toscan du Plantier was discovered by a neighbour, lying face-up on the grass verge.
‘Her face was bludgeoned, her hands were gashed and her fingers were broken,’ runs the description in the West Cork podcast. ‘There was blood through her hair and on her white nightclothes, more pooled around her head. Her pyjama top was pushed up to her chest; her pyjama pants were torn at the waist and the elastic waistband still caught on the barbed-wire fence. Even though she was in nightclothes, she was wearing laced-up boots.
‘A large flat piece of slate was next to the body and nearby, on top of a dark blue bathrobe, [was] a big concrete block, weighing more than 40lb. Both were covered in blood.’
Detectives with An Garda Síochána, the Irish police force, later discovered that du Plantier had almost 50 injuries to her body. There were cuts and scratches most likely caused by the thorns of briars and brambles; they suggested she had been trying to flee from her attacker, possibly in the dark.
Defensive injuries to her arms and hands indicated that she had fought frantically for her life. Most horrific, however, was the trauma to her head, neck and shoulders; she had been the victim of a savagely violent attack involving repeated blows with the large rock and concrete block. Another weapon, possibly a small axe, may also have been used, but it was never found.
‘Such was the damage inflicted to her head and face,’ writes Irish journalist Ralph Riegel, in his recent book on the case, ‘it was almost as if her killer had tried to entirely erase her beauty and render her unrecognisable.’
Dreenane was du Plantier’s holiday home. She lived in Paris, where she had been raised, with her wealthy husband Daniel Toscan du Plantier, who was 16 years older than her. She also had a 15-year-old son, Pierre-Louis, from her first marriage.
In the mid-1990s the du Plantiers were something of a glamorous and golden couple: he was a renowned and influential film producer; she was known for her intelligence, spirit and luminous beauty.
Three years after the couple married in 1990, she bought the house at Dreenane as a kind of spiritual and creative retreat. It was a special place away from Daniel – he only visited once – that she could come to with her son, family and friends.
She decorated the home stylishly yet sparsely, a reflection of her desire for a certain simplicity and freedom. In the local phone book she was listed under her maiden name, Bouniol.
Du Plantier spoke good English and connected strongly with some of the local people, and with the landscape, sea views and Irish culture, especially its writers and poets. She cherished time away from Paris to walk, read, think and write, and she had been due to fly back to France that Monday.
Investigators soon discovered that du Plantier had been alone in the house that night. When the guards (as the police are known colloquially in Ireland) began to search the house, one of the first things they discovered, on the kitchen table, was an anthology of Irish poetry held open by a pot of honey. The page revealed a short poem by WB Yeats titled A Dream of Death; the first two lines are: ‘I dreamed that one had died in a strange place/Near no accustomed hand.’
Du Plantier’s house in remote Dreenane
Credit: Frederic Dugit / Avalon
The book looked to be exactly as du Plantier had left it, as was the rest of the house. There was no sign of forced entry, or of any disturbance. Nothing was missing; her purse full of cash and credit cards was beside her bed. The post-mortem also revealed that du Plantier had not been subjected to any kind of sexual assault.
Detectives were left with a series of questions that largely remain unanswered to this day. Who knew she was alone in Dreenane just days before Christmas? Was there a knock at her door, or did she hear a noise outside and go to investigate? Did a confrontation ensue that got out of control? Where did the attack, or series of attacks, take place? Why did she run downhill and not towards her nearest neighbours at the top of the hill? Was the murder premeditated or a manic crime of passion? Did Sophie know the identity of her killer? And did that murderer live locally or had he perhaps travelled from France?
The killing of Sophie Toscan du Plantier seemed to be a crime with no motive, no security camera or CCTV footage, and no witnesses. Most confounding of all, for both the police and Sophie’s family, there turned out to be no forensic evidence either.
Although local guards were charged with carefully preserving the crime scene, in 1996 Ireland only had one state pathologist, who was based in Dublin, 230 miles away. Professor John Harbison could not attend the scene until the next day, Christmas Eve; he eventually arrived almost 28 hours after du Plantier’s body was discovered.
While the corpse had been covered with a plastic tarpaulin overnight, it had been lying out in the open for two winter nights. The delay meant that no accurate body-temperature reading could be taken, and therefore no time of death estimated. Du Plantier ended a phone call to her husband in France around 11pm on the Sunday, so could have been murdered at any time during the following 11 hours.
Most mystifyingly, forensic tests from the body, laneway and blood splattered on a nearby iron gate, and from the house, revealed that the DNA was du Plantier’s alone. Even strands of hair found clasped in her hand proved to be her own. The only alien DNA detected was in blood recovered from the back door of the house; the identity of that sample remains unknown.
‘Given the number of injuries inflicted on du Plantier and the frenzied nature of the attack,’ controversial journalist, far-right activist and conspiracy theorist Gemma O’Doherty has written, in one of her less incendiary articles, ‘it is inconceivable that the killer did not leave a single trace of hair, skin, blood, saliva or clothing at the scene, yet the guards claimed no such materials were ever found.’
Much speculation about the case stems from this absence of hard scientific evidence. Did time and weather degrade the crime scene? Did the guards responsible for preserving it contribute to that eradication through inexperience, incompetence, or deliberate act? Was the killer either extremely careful or extraordinarily lucky?
Du Plantier with her young son, Pierre-Louis
Although many might not agree, particularly members of du Plantier’s family, one party in this tragic case who would consider himself exceedingly unlucky is Ian Bailey.
He quickly became the guards’ chief suspect. An English immigrant, Bailey lived close to the murder scene, was seen with scratches on his hands, and was allegedly spotted close to Dreenane in the early hours of 23 December. He also had a reputation for unusual, erratic and even violent behaviour.
Despite no forensics linking him to the crime, and the evidence against him proving insufficient and unreliable (the key witness, for example, later retracted her statement), Bailey was twice arrested and released without charge – only to find himself identified in the media, vilified in his local community, found guilty in the court of public opinion, and facing a long and bitter battle to clear his name.
Sitting in the open-air lean-to that adjoins his shed in the idyllic West Cork property owned by his partner, Jules Thomas, smoking roll-ups and surrounded by chickens and the tools of his other creative diversion, wood carving, Bailey tells me, metaphorically, what the last 24 years have been like.
‘They’ve tried to burn me, they’ve tried to hang me, and they’ve tried to cut my head off,’ he says. ‘I’ve been through so many hoops and fires and pyres, and they have wrecked my life, and Jules’s life, and a lot of people’s lives. But guess what? I’m still here, and I can’t believe it.’
Du Plantier with Roger Vadim
Ian Bailey was born in 1957 (the same year as du Plantier) and grew up in Stockport, Greater Manchester. The product of industrious parents, Bailey trained as a journalist, married fellow reporter Sarah Limbrick in 1979 (the marriage ended acrimoniously after four years), and moved to Cheltenham, where eventually he set up his own successful freelance news service, serving local and national media, including the investigative Sunday Times Insight team.
The 1980s were mostly good to Bailey, financially and professionally. ‘I never went into journalism for the money though,’ he says. ‘All I ever wanted to do was expose the devils.’ Yet in 1991 he decided to move to Ireland to focus more on artistic pursuits – writing, poetry, music.
Like many who’ve made a similar move, he was drawn to West Cork by its spectacular natural beauty and strong sense of remove, qualities that have inspired celebrities such as Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack, Graham Norton and Jeremy Paxman to buy homes in the area. At one point in the ’90s, parts of West Cork were so popular with the rich and famous that the area became known, only half-jokingly, as ‘the Irish Riviera’.
At the other extreme, West Cork was a hideaway out on the edge of Europe, a burgeoning community of artists, hippies, bohemians, city refugees and eco-pioneers that promised adventure and a better life.
‘I love Ireland – love the people, love the culture,’ says Bailey. ‘The funny thing is, even after everything I’ve been through, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The only way I’d leave West Cork now is in a casket.’
Bailey soon met and moved in with Welsh-born artist Jules Thomas, eight years his senior. Thomas was one of the original West Cork ‘blow-ins’, moving there in 1973, setting up home and studio in a cottage outside Schull, where she raised three daughters, grew her own vegetables and created a stunning sub-tropical garden.
The couple have stayed together for nearly 30 years, but the relationship has had bouts of extreme volatility. Bailey has assaulted Thomas three times: in 1993; in 1996, eight months before the murder of du Plantier; and in 2001, when he was arrested and spent three weeks in custody.
Du Plantier's mother in 2004
Credit: Paul Cooper/Shutterstock
The 1996 attack was the most serious. When a friend and neighbour, sculptor Peter Bielecki, was asked to check on her by her daughter, he found Thomas lying on the floor in a foetal position, with a swollen eye, scratches to her face, a clump of hair torn from her scalp, and what appeared to be bite marks on her hands. Bielecki later described her broken cries as ‘animal-like’, the sounds of someone who ‘had their soul ripped out’.
Ian Bailey’s history of violence was not the only factor that led detectives to his door in the days after the murder. His proximity to Dreenane and the scratches on his hands and arms, which he said were the result of killing turkeys and cutting down the family Christmas tree, also implicated him.
Detectives also claimed that, even though Bailey maintained he had never met du Plantier, he seemed to know more about her, and the murder, than was feasible. Contacted by The Cork Examiner, a paper he had approached as a freelancer, Bailey was the first journalist at the scene, at 2.20pm, and in the weeks that followed he contributed detailed reports to papers in the Republic of Ireland, Britain and France, often using the more Irish-sounding byline Eoin Bailey.
Two further developments led to Bailey being arrested on 10 February 1997. A woman called Marie Farrell claimed she had seen him at a roadside bridge near du Plantier’s house in the early hours of Monday morning as she was driving home.
Fourteen-year-old Malachi Reid also alleged that Bailey had said to him, referring to the case during a lift he had given the schoolboy neighbour: ‘I was fine up until I went up there with a rock and bashed her fucking brains in.’ Bailey explained he was simply using black humour to recount what others were saying about him.
In addition, during 12 hours of questioning, Bailey changed his alibi about how he had spent the night and early morning of the murder. He had first told detectives that he and Thomas had been together the entire time. But on further interrogation he admitted he had got up in the night, handwritten an article at the kitchen table, and typed it up early that morning in a work studio belonging to Thomas along the lane from his house.
Twenty-two years on, the case stil remains open and unsolved
Credit: Boo George
Despite having voluntarily provided fingerprint and hair samples to the guards soon after the murder, Bailey was arrested for a second time in January 1998, but was again released without charge.
Soon afterwards, detectives submitted a 2,000-page file to Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that made the case for charging Bailey with murder. It was rejected: the evidence of witnesses such as Marie Farrell was considered unreliable; other evidence was deemed insufficient or circumstantial.
Twenty-two years on, the case remains open and unsolved, with speculation still swirling around Bailey. Had he, as some locals claim, met du Plantier? Did he know she was at Dreenane that weekend? Could he have walked the 36-minute route to her house and back on empty back roads on a moonlit night without being seen? And what was his motive?
Bailey has answered these questions many times, both in media interviews and law courts, but I ask him why his denials differ so diametrically to the accounts of others. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ he replies, with perhaps understandable impatience.
‘Most of those stories are absolute nonsense, a figment of someone’s imagination. Rumours spread out from behind me like mushrooms. I wasn’t there. It had nothing to do with me. The whole thing is irrational, illogical. And bears no real scrutiny. As the DPP’s report said.’
An alternative question, of course, reads like this: is Ian Bailey, in fact, a wholly innocent man who has been stripped of his presumption of innocence and is instead the victim of a campaign of complacency, conspiracy and prejudice (or, as Bailey has alleged, ‘xenophobia’) that has left him in fear of his freedom, sanity and life?
And is it possible that an investigation fixed so stubbornly on Bailey has allowed the real killer to remain at large? Were other lines of inquiry sufficiently investigated? There was, for example, the suspicion that a member of the local guards, who has since died, was responsible. There were also two suicides shortly after the murder, of a local French man and German man. And were links back to du Plantier’s life in Paris and her relationship with her husband fully examined? Daniel (who died in 2003) was criticised for not travelling to Ireland after his wife’s murder – and he married, for a fourth time, a woman almost 30 years his junior, 18 months afterwards. ‘You have to respond to death with life,’ he said.
The lack of a murder charge was not the end of the story for Bailey, who seems to strangely relish the spotlight. Rather than keeping his head down, since 2003 Bailey has been known to court the media and has embarked on a series of high-profile legal actions and appeals: a libel claim against eight newspapers, six of which (including one against The Daily Telegraph) he lost; and a civil action for wrongful arrest against the Irish State, which lasted five months, failed, and led to Bailey, who has no known assets and no full-time employment, being ordered to pay costs of up to €5 million. In addition, Bailey has long alleged members of the guards conducted a corrupt investigation against him and that evidence was ‘falsified, forged and fabricated’. A Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission report in 2018 raised grave concerns about aspects of the investigation – the blood-splashed sixbar iron gate, for example, has since gone missing – but found no evidence of high level corruption.
Over the past decade, as well as gaining a master’s in law at University College Cork, Ian Bailey has also successfully contested three European Arrest Warrants (EAW) issued in France following campaigning by the influential group The Association for the Truth about the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the terms of which have rendered him, as his pro bono solicitor Frank Buttimer has said, ‘a prisoner in a country called Ireland’. He could not travel to Essex, for example, to visit his elderly and infirm mother or attend her funeral in 2013.
The third EAW was issued in June 2019 – this time, a non-jury trial in Paris had allowed evidence to be heard that had been insufficient, inadmissible or even retracted in Ireland, and Ian Bailey was convicted of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in absentia and a 25-year sentence imposed.
Bailey at the High Court in Dublin last month
Credit: Shutterstock/PA Photos
Last month, surrender to French authorities was again refused in the Irish High Court. ‘Just put yourself in a situation where, not only are you falsely accused, but you’re falsely accused of a very, very horrible crime, which you have nothing to do with – it is frightening,’ he says. ‘But even the unluckiest man or woman in the world gets lucky sometimes.’
Ian Bailey is not the only force that has kept the case firmly in the public eye. The West Cork podcast, an eight-hour, 13-part series, written, narrated and produced by young journalists Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, is brilliantly reported and compellingly constructed, and quickly became one of Audible’s most popular podcasts; it is expected to become freely available via iTunes soon.
Bungey and Forde have continued to investigate the case and are working on further episodes. They are writing a book on the case, A Good Suspect, due for publication in 2022. Then there are two film documentary series nearing completion, both scheduled for next spring. Jim Sheridan and Colm Quinn have joined forces with investigative reporter Donal MacIntyre to make In Absentia. Sheridan, the director of feature films including My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, has been researching the case for nearly six years; this will be his first documentary. His team claims to have exclusive access to Ian Bailey, and the four-part documentary will be shown on Sky.
A rival film is being made by two-time Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn, and John Dower, who directed and co-wrote My Scientology Movie with Louis Theroux. The makers of the as-yet-untitled three-part Netflix Original series claim to have the full cooperation and sole blessing of du Plantier’s family. If this is true, it may prove a crucial point of difference between the two films; like many victims of crime, du Plantier has too often seemed a strangely spectral and secondary presence in her own murder. Perhaps the dislocation of family, culture and language has not helped. Throughout the past 24 years, however, du Plantier’s family and their many supporters have bravely strived for justice and resolution.
They have suffered a double tragedy: the loss of a daughter, sister, mother, niece and friend; and anger and incomprehension at the failure of the Irish justice system to convict du Plantier’s murderer – whom they vehemently believe to be Ian Bailey (the triple tragedy is if he is not).
Unless new evidence comes forward, Bailey is highly unlikely to ever be charged in Ireland, and it’s also highly unlikely that any French extradition request would ever succeed. Under Irish law, a person cannot be arrested a third time for questioning about the same crime unless the guards actually intend to level a charge. And even if they could and he faced trial, how would you find an unprejudiced jury?
Maybe the films and the new podcast will move the case forward. Maybe there will be a deathbed confession one day – in West Cork or Paris. Maybe we’ll never know who did it, because the killer is already dead.
Du Plantier’s parents, Marguerite and Georges Bouniol, are now 89 and 94 respectively. Sophie’s son, Pierre-Louis, 39, describes the day he was told his mother had been murdered as ‘my last day of being a child; she was everything for me’. He has kept the house at Dreenane and returns to it often with his wife, Aurelia, son Louis, and daughter, who is named Sophie. The simple interior is largely unchanged; his mother’s duffel coat still hangs on a hook by the back door. There is a small Celtic cross, with du Plantier’s name, at the spot where she was murdered.
‘I know it’s very difficult for people to understand why I’m still coming to Ireland, to this house,’ Pierre-Louis has said. ‘But Ireland is part of my life and I don’t want to blame Ireland, because she loved this country, and I love this country. And it’s so important for me to bring my children to this house, for them to know their grandmother.’
In a book about the murder published in France in 2014, there is a foreword by Pierre-Louis; in it he describes a dream in which his family is in the living room of the house in West Cork and his daughter asks, ‘Papa, why have you never told me about your mum?’
He writes, in response, ‘Everyone has the right to know why certain assassins remain free, right there near you. May those who perpetrated this denial of justice and still feed it today, come and explain the truth to my daughter,’ he writes. ‘I am waiting for them there, by the fireplace.’
Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murder – and what followed
This article was originally published on November 14, 2020