'I faced down my rapist - I felt I had power again'
Former Fine Gael senator and Hepatitis C sufferer Niamh Cosgrave bravely tells Maeve Sheehan about her harrowing rape ordeal
A dog stretches out beneath the coffee table. Winter sun gleams through the patio doors. Niamh Cosgrave, a former Fine Gael politician, settles down with a coffee in the living room of her old townhouse in Chef Bouttone, a village in west France, where she's lived since 2007. "You've seen how quiet it is here?" she asks.
The village is so sleepy that locals regularly leave their doors unlocked, even at night. This was one of the reasons the she moved here eight years ago, post divorce and coping with "on and off" depression.
She wasn't particularly concerned when one night she was woken from her slumber by a gentle tap on her shoulder. She assumed it was Ben, her affectionate French Spaniel who is adept at opening door handles with his snout. He usually let himself out through the French windows if he needed to pee during the night.
"I was really pissed off, I was like, 'you know how to get out, why are you waking me like that?'" she says.
She turned over to get out of bed when suddenly she had her head pulled forward and pushed down. "All I could see were white tracksuit bottoms, and I thought, 'alright, this is a kid, he wants to rob me, keep calm'."
She tried to raise her head, but he ordered her to keep it down. When she reached out her hand for a mobile phone she thought was on her bedside table, he slapped her.
"I thought, 'right, this is getting a bit serious'," she recalls. Then, standing over her, he put his hand down his tracksuit bottoms and started to masturbate. "That's when I went, 'oh fuck, I'm in trouble here'."
That night Niamh, who is now 50, woke to every woman's nightmare. She was brutally raped, beaten and dragged back by the hair, when she tried to escape. Her attacker, Christian Gladieux, turned out to be a married man who lived minutes from her house, and whom she now she suspects stalked her, staked out her home and befriended her beloved dog in advance of his attack.
He was also a serial rapist. He was jailed in 1998 for breaking into a female neighbour's house, cutting off the electricity, and repeatedly raping her. In 2010, he received another sentence for sexually assaulting a minor. Niamh was his third known victim.
Such was the severity of the assault on her that last Tuesday, a French court sentenced Gladieux to 18 years in prison and a further 10 years of psychiatric supervision on his release.
"Today is the start of the rest of my life," she says smiling - it's the morning after she watched him being led away in handcuffs to start his prison sentence. "My life for the last two years and five months has been on hold, waiting on this court case."
She has decided to waive her right to anonymity, to silence those who judged her, to encourage others to come forward, and to try take back control over a situation that came close to destroying her life.
While Gladieux was in prison awaiting trial, Niamh was in a prison of her own, afraid to go out because of rumours circulated in the village by his friends that it was, as she puts it, "a sex game gone wrong".
To the gossip-mongers, she says: "My message to them is keep your mouth shut; wait until justice has taken its course before you make a judgment. Because it is actually gossips - people who have nothing better to do - as well as their treatment by certain justice systems, that stop women from coming forward."
This is not the first time Niamh has spoken publicly about a very personal trauma. She was a young Dublin mother when she discovered she was one of hundreds of pregnant women infected with Hepatitis C through the contaminated blood product, Anti-D. She was the first of them to go public, criticising the State's blood transfusion service and campaigning for a compensation scheme.
She followed her father, Michael Joe Cosgrave, a former Fine Gael TD in Dublin North East, into politics. She was briefly a Fine Gael senator in 1997, and was a councillor for eight years. In 2007 she was deemed to have resigned her seat because of her poor attendance record at council meetings. At the time, she says, she was struggling to continue a normal life. She was going through a divorce, raising young children, while battling bouts of fatigue and depression - by-products of Hepatitis C.
That was when she moved to Chef Bouttone, where she had invested her Hep C compensation in a house in the village. She made a living investing in gites and renting them.
In recent years, she unknowingly encountered the man who would rape her when she started volunteering at the local Red Cross. The charity distributed food to families with social welfare vouchers, but she noticed his wife, who stocked their kitchen, "never him".
On September 4, 2012, she was preparing for a dinner party for the following evening. "I'd spent the day cooking, getting the house clean and then went to bed," she said.
According to a report prepared by the investigating magistrate, Gladieux entered her house that night through the open doors in the kitchen. The dog didn't bark - leading to suspicions that he either befriended or sedated him.
After waking to find Gladieux in her room, Niamh tried to delay him, requesting cigarettes and then pretending she needed to use the bathroom, but he insisted on going with her. "We went back into the hallway and I thought my only way out is through that back door, and that's when I made a run for it," she said. He swung around, hit her on the face and broke her jaw.
"He pulled me by the hair and dragged me through the corridor on my knees. He punched me all over. I fought and fought. I thought, 'if I go down into that bedroom he's going to kill me'," she says.
Then he raped her, beating her repeatedly, his depravity feeding on her fear. At one point, she said, breaking into tears: "All I could see was that photograph of my kids. I was trying to lean across to turn the photograph over - it was like they were in the room with me . . . He said, 'you're never going to see them again anyway'."
"He played with me the way a cat plays with a mouse. He was too much in control, this told me that this was a guy who had done this before."
Afterwards, he told her not to move and said he was going to Paris. "He left the bedroom. I didn't know whether he'd gone to find a knife, I didn't know where he was. My heart wasn't thumping at that stage. It was, literally, this is it. He'd done too much . . . I was 100pc sure he can't walk away from this and keep me alive."
Eventually, she went to the kitchen, where she found her phone, and rang the gendarmes.
She spent the next 24 hours in hospital. "The minute I arrived at the hospital, and went through the examinations, I was treated with dignity and respect and, most importantly, as a human being," she said. "The French system, in my opinion, is far more human, you are treated with so much respect."
She was told by police it was "unsafe to go home" and so she stayed in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks until Gladiuex was arrested.
The police came to hospital to tell her he had admitted raping her and they were bringing him to court. "They said if you sit out on the balcony, we'll get the sirens going as we pass the hospital, and you can say goodbye to him. And I sat outside smoking my cigarette, and I could hear the sirens and I could wave bye, bye."
She returned home, intending to tell people she was beaten up in a robbery. "I come home and the whole town knows that something had happened. Not only that, they are talking about a sexual game that had gone wrong, that I knew this guy, and people had contacted my family and friends in Ireland by Facebook to say, 'she's accusing an innocent man'; 'she's exaggerating'," she says.
The case took more than two years to come to trial. She lost interest in herself, lost weight and survived on soup, made for her by a friend - she could only eat with a straw or spoon. She attempted suicide and was in hospital four times.
Her friends rallied around, and were with her at 9.30am at the Court de Deux Sevres in Niort last Tuesday morning, when the case against Gladieux opened for a one-day hearing before presiding magistrate and a jury.
Despite a fretful night, Niamh turned up looking calm and chic in a black dress and red jacket, accompanied by her brother, Cormac, and his wife, Ann Marie, who flew over from Ireland, and a large group of French and English neighbours and friends.
Amanda Bane, a consul attached to the Irish Embassy in Paris, attended the case to support Niamh.
Gladieux admitted rape, but denied the level of violence. The evidence suggested otherwise. The court was told of his previous sex crimes, and he was shown photographs of Niamh's injuries, her broken jaw, bruises on her face and body. Despite his claims that he intended to rob her, nothing was taken from her home, not even the €200 in cash in her handbag on the kitchen table.
For most of the day, she avoided eye contact with him, and at one point broke down in tears. When it was her turn to testify, anger overcame her. She turned, eyes blazing, and pointed an accusing finger at him. "I didn't see that monster anymore. I just saw that guy," she said afterwards. "I said, 'you raped me, you terrorised me, you threatened me and you beat me up. When you went out of my house you walked away with my dignity and my humanity'. And that's when he looked away."
The jury took three hours to decide on a sentence of 18 years. The judge praised Niamh's bravery, describing her as "a woman of courage". Even Gladieux's defence lawyer expressed her admiration for her.
Niamh's reaction? "I felt like we saved the life of another woman," she said, afterwards. "I'm convinced there are more [victims] out there...The one thing I hope is that if there are such women out there, they will come forward. But for me the most important thing was that I looked him in the eye, accused him face to face," she said. "To look at him, between two gendarmes . . .I felt safe. I felt like I have power again."