Sophie’s tragic tale is dominated by bizarre twists and Ian Bailey’s towering ego
Case has clearly taken toll on poet but the focus must always remain on family’s search for justice
June 27 2021 02:30 AM
The first time I met Ian Bailey, he left an unforgettable impression. It was 24 years ago and I was hoping to persuade him to talk about the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder case for a newspaper article.
He was quite determined to say nothing whatsoever on the matter on the advice of his solicitor, the late Con Murphy.
Unfailingly polite, he skilfully deflected every question I asked until, at the end, he suddenly turned to me and asked what kind of market his photojournalism would find with the Sunday Independent?
I can still recall my amazement at the question almost a quarter of a century later. Here was a man who had just been arrested for questioning about the murder of the French mother and released without charge — and his concern seemed to be career opportunities?
But, as I was to learn, it was classic Ian Bailey.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Jim Sheridan’s Sky series, Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie is how it manages to offer a detailed portrait of the incredibly complex character that is Bailey and carefully assess the impact on a tight-knit community of one of Ireland’s most notorious unsolved crimes.
I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the case having worked on it since 1997. I even wrote a book, A Dream of Death, about it last year.
But I found myself transfixed both by the images of Bailey and the bizarre twists in the story.
Sheridan’s documentary took six years to complete and I was invited to contribute just over two years ago via investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre. The series is compulsive viewing and its impact on the community which Sophie described as her “dream home” cannot be overstated.
That day 24 years ago I remember thinking Bailey had the classic appearance of a Shakespearean leading actor — tall, with raven black hair and rugged good looks. I’ve lost count of the times people told me he reminded them of the Heathcliff character from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
I can still recall my shock at his appearance when he arrived at Cork Circuit Civil Court in December 2003 for a defamation action he was taking against eight Irish and UK newspapers over their coverage of him in respect of the du Plantier case.
Bailey has consistently protested his innocence and complained that deliberate attempts were made to frame him for the crime. He also claimed elements in the media were determined to brand him as the killer.
In that space of six years, Bailey appeared to have aged two decades — the raven black locks were greying, his face was drawn and there was a stoop in his once proudly upright shoulders.
The toll taken on him wasn’t eased when he lost the bulk of the actions.
Over the next 18 years he would fight three extradition actions, two High Court cases and make a detailed complaint to the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).
In May 2019, the French convicted him of Sophie’s murder in absentia after a one-week trial in Paris. Bailey dismissed the prosecution as “a show trial” and “a mockery of justice”, but speaking to him in 2019 and 2020, I could sense the growing strain he felt over yet another extradition bid.
Last month I was sitting outside Bantry District Court when Bailey arrived for a contested drug-driving hearing which he would also ultimately lose. He shuffled into court, using a bandana as a face covering.
Unfailingly polite as always, he declined to comment beyond confirming he would appeal the drug-driving conviction.
As he walked away across Bantry town square, trailed by photographers, I couldn’t help but think he was old far beyond his 64 years. Yet his capacity to astonish remains.
For the 2018 premiere of the Audible podcast series based on the case, West Cork, he arrived late — thereby attracting every eye on the room — and was wearing a hat adorned with a large pheasant feather.
Recently, he has taken to Twitter and combines snippets of poetry with pleas for justice to be done for an innocent man.
A good friend once remarked to me that, over the past 24 years, Sophie has somehow become lost in the headlines and court reports.
A colleague recently raised concerns that Sophie’s death has somehow generated a mini-media industry with films, books and podcasts being produced about one of Ireland’s most notorious unsolved crimes.
It is hard to argue with that. The only justification is that, hopefully, the publicity might somehow help release the critical piece of information that detectives have sought in vain since December 1996 to solve the case.
No family deserves justice to be served more than Sophie’s — particularly her son Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud and her parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol.
Truth be told, my abiding memory of 24 years of writing about this case doesn’t involve court reports, press conferences or anything to do with Ian Bailey.
It comes from a dark, December evening almost 13 years ago when I was standing on the Toormore laneway just a few metres from the Celtic cross that marks the spot where Sophie’s body was found.
Sophie’s family had travelled to Cork for a press conference about their ongoing campaign for justice and a memorial service. They were going to hold a candlelit vigil at the cross to remember Sophie.
I thought it would be worthwhile to be there. I wasn’t alone, with now retired Irish Examiner photographer Des Barry also present.
We were both acutely conscious of respecting the family’s privacy so stayed at a distance down the laneway waiting for the ceremony to start.
A member of the family approached us and invited us into Sophie’s house to sit by the fire and have a warm drink. I politely declined as we didn’t want to impose.
Minutes later they approached again and said if we didn’t go up to the house, Sophie’s elderly mother would be forced to walk down the steep laneway in the dark to personally bring us drinks and food.
We sat that night by the open fireside as Sophie’s family made strangers feel welcome as friends.
Later, standing in the flickering candlelight at the spot where their beloved Sophie died, I wondered at how such evil can be visited on good and decent people.
That is a memory no one should ever forget.