Sat, Jan 17, 2004, 00:00
As the people of Schull wait for Monday’s judgment in the Ian Bailey libel trial, there is growing anger that nobody has yet been charged with the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, reports Carl O’Brien from west Cork
It is seven years since her death. Yet at the bottom of the lane where Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered lies a bunch of lilies which looks as if it was placed there just days ago. In many ways, memories of the murder of the 39-year-old French woman in west Cork have never withered. It is still, for a large section of the community, raw and unresolved.
“It’s not something people will easily forget about,” says Val Duffy, a former pub and hotel owner in the seaside village of Schull, Co Cork. “It happened at Christmas time, so everyone remembers it each year. The family comes back every December for the anniversary Mass. The fact that it is still unresolved keeps it a live issue.”
On Monday, the events of December 23rd, 1996, when Toscan du Plantier was bludgeoned to death in the early hours of the morning, will be revisited once again. Judge Patrick J. Moran will deliver his judgment on the libel case at Cork Circuit Court in which Ian Bailey, a freelance journalist arrested twice but never charged in relation to the murder, is suing eight newspapers for articles that, he says, suggested he was the murderer.
With alleged confessions of murder, diary extracts, explicit details of domestic violence and claims of intimidation by witnesses, the 10-day hearing had all the hallmarks of a murder trial.
Yet, as the community waits expectantly to hear the outcome, there is growing frustration that no one has been charged for the murder of Toscan du Plantier despite a major Garda investigation over a two-year period
“People resent the fact that whoever murdered her is still on the loose,” says one former neighbour of Toscan du Plantier, who declines to be named. “Since the libel case, it’s clear that an awful lot of information was gathered, yet no-one was ever charged. People are angry about that. There’s a feeling of ‘why hasn’t more been done?'”
In his converted farmhouse about two miles from Schull, Bill Hogan, a cheese-maker who was acquainted with Toscan du Plantier, still feels shock at the circumstances of her death.
“She’d come here, sometimes with her cousin or aunt, and it would always be a 15- or 20-minute visit. I only knew her as Ms Bouniol at the time. She’d taste some cheese, have a glass of wine,” says Hogan, speaking in precise, gentle tones.
“She had a glow, kind of like the French actress, Catherine Deneuve. She was a very beautiful, delicate person. She found a sense of ease here. I once asked her what her life was like at home in Paris, and I remember she said ‘my life is like a multi- storey’.”
For Hogan, what made the murder horribly incongruous was that it happened in west Cork, an area which has attracted foreigners because of its welcoming atmosphere and often bohemian lifestyle.
“This is a rather special community,” says Hogan, an American who moved to Schull in the mid-1980s. “Many places in rural Ireland are conservative. Locals here are open-minded, all kinds of people live here. Somehow, it all just works. It’s incredible to think how she could have been targeted. She came here to read poetry, drink some wine and eat some cheese. It’s so incongruous for a place like this, which is a haven.”
Schull in winter is a world apart from the bustling and lively village it is during the summer. Many of the shops and cafés are closed. The pubs are quiet. As a cold January rain pelts down on the countryside, the area feels isolated and lonely. It is at this time of year, say locals, that there are constant reminders of the murder that still haunts the community.
“When no-one has been charged for the murder, there is always the feeling that a murderer may be in our midst,” says one neighbour who lived in Toormore, close to Toscan du Plantier’s house. “In that sense, you’re hit with it almost every day. It has affected an awful lot of people quite badly. Some people have moved away from the area. In the libel case, some witnesses had to put some very personal things on the line.”
Vera Duffy, who co-ran Schull’s Bunratty Inn and East End Hotel with her husband, Val, also expresses unease at the impact of the murder.
“I’ve lived in Dublin and London, so I’ve been around. But I’m nervous when I’m on my own now,” she says. “I have two single friends and we have both talked about the phone call we would make to one another to warn them if something ever happened.”
One local, who gave evidence in the court case but declined to be named, also says the atmosphere has changed for the worse. “People are more careful now, they are much more likely to put a lock on their door at night. They are taking more care.”
Another neighbour says the seemingly random nature of the murder has added to the sense of fear. “There are a lot of single women living in fear in the area. One close friend of mine had a nervous breakdown over Christmas. It can have that effect on people.”
Last December’s libel case, spread out over two weeks, finally brought many of the rumours and allegations that have circulated in the area over the last seven years out into the open. However, while some were happy to have the incidents discussed in court, this feeling was tempered by a fear of what the consequences might be after the trial. There are reports that a noose was left on the wall of Bailey’s house after the case and that a window of his partner’s house was smashed.
In all, the trial produced around 20 neighbours and former acquaintances of Bailey in the Schull area, many of whom were called on subpoena.
Caroline Leftwick, a local shopkeeper, summed up the feeling of much of the community when she told the court: “I’m nervous. We all have to go home and live in west Cork when this is over. I don’t like being the centre of attention.”
Among others at a greater remove from the case, there is now anger that no-one has been charged given the extent of the Garda investigation.
“Of course there were rumours about this and that beforehand. But to hear what was said in court, in an official setting, had a big impact on people,” says one.
“There is still deep upset and anger given that no-one has been charged, despite the extent of the investigation. Some feel it should be up to a judge to decide who did it. Others don’t see it quite like that,” says another.
Bailey, who says he has been ostracised by locals and deprived of his career because of the articles written about him, is rarely seen in the local pubs these days. His partner’s daughter said in court that they no longer socialised and she had “cried for two years” after it emerged that Bailey was the main suspect in the murder.
However, it is unclear whether he realised that, in taking the libel case, his personal life and actions following the murder would come under such close scrutiny. Details of his three assaults on his partner, Jules Thomas, were discussed at length, while diary extracts relating to the attacks were examined almost forensically in court.
There were also three alleged “confessions” of murder, alleged sightings of Bailey close to Toscan du Plantier’s house on the morning of the murder, and claims that he was burning material on his property in the days following the killing.
Bailey rejected all these accounts and said locals were either mistaken or had misinterpreted what he said on various occasions.
“The only reason I am doing this is that I had nothing to do with this murder and this is the only way I can possibly try to end this dreadful thing,” he told the court last month.
Whatever about the anger over the slow pace in bringing Toscan du Plantier’s murderer to justice, Bill Hogan says that, in a strange way, the community has grown stronger over the last seven years.
“People are sticking together, keeping track of one another in a way they mightn’thave done before. There is much more community spirit. There are women who feel frightened and they know that whoever did it could flip out again. But people are making the best of it,” he says.
Despite the fruitless seven-year search for the murderer of Toscan du Plantier, Hogan is still hopeful that, in time, justice will be done.
“In some ways I feel so frustrated over what has happened. I was listening to the radio last week and a man whose autistic daughter was allegedly abused by other psychiatric patients was interviewed. They asked him if he was angry. He said he was normally an angry man, but that anger would just get in the way now. I feel the same way.
“There is a Spanish saying which, translated, says: ‘The wheels of the Lord grind slow but fine.’ It’s apt. Right will somehow out.”