25 years ago this week Sophie Toscan du Plantier was beaten to death outside her home in Cork
By his own admission, Ian Bailey is feeling groggy. “It’s been a long year, I suppose. A lot has happened,” remarks the 64-year-old, as he stirs his coffee following late breakfast in a local tavern in Glengarriff, Co Cork.
“Maybe that’s an understatement,” he smiles ruefully. “I’m regrouping. It’s been a tough year, without a doubt. But in creative terms, I’m feeling inspired.”
In physical terms, the past 12 months have clearly taken a toll on the Englishman.
Bailey walks with a cane these days and appears a little dishevelled. He is a far cry from the sharp-dressed figure regularly pictured entering and exiting court — then an impossibly tall, imposing and instantly recognisable man. A man who will forever be linked to the West Cork murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
But like he says, this past year has been tough.
The most seismic event for him was the abrupt end of his 30-year relationship with his partner, artist Jules Thomas. The break-up almost left him homeless. But he recently secured temporary emergency accommodation in Glengarriff, provided by Cork County Council. Life is now looking up, he insists.
“It was traumatic. It was like a divorce, even though we weren’t married. No break-up is easy. I’m still coming to terms with the emotional side of it. I’m sure our paths will cross again. We were both put through a lot. It was too much for her. I could handle the media side of it, she couldn’t.”
The breakdown of the most important relationship of his adult life was a direct consequence of other events this past year, he says. The release of two documentaries on the 1996 murder of Sophie, on Netflix and Sky, once again thrust the former chief suspect back into the international spotlight.
“All the renewed publicity by the new documentaries proved too much for Jules. Fair play to her, she stood by me all those years. There are no bad feelings... I wrote her a letter yesterday, passing on my new address. I said I hoped she was well, I told her that I’m flourishing.”
How, exactly, is he flourishing?
“Creatively I am. With my writings and my ideas. I’ve started my autobiography, I’m looking for a publisher. I’d like to return to journalism too. I miss being a reporter. I’d like to be a freelancer again. I could use a nom de plume.”
At the tavern where we meet, Ian Bailey has taken ownership of a little nook in the corner. Positioned in front of a chair propped with cushions is his laptop, books, newspaper cuttings and notebooks of writing. His personal items are neatly arranged, alongside bars of chocolate.
He agrees it is a “home away from home” but declines to take us to where he says he lives. Instead, we venture into a back room of the premises, to talk somewhere quieter out of earshot of the locals and staff, many of whom he’s on first-name terms with.
“There were times recently when I did not know what was going to happen, where I would end up living after I had to move out of The Prairie (Jules’s house). I was getting nowhere. I would be looking at places and they would suddenly become unavailable.
“I do wonder if that was because of who I was, my notoriety.”
The past 25 years of Ian Bailey’s life have been defined by one thing. The incessant accusation that he is the man who killed Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
He has always vehemently denied this, though the French authorities remain convinced of his guilt. He’s been arrested twice by gardaí over the unsolved killing, but the DPP directed there was insufficient evidence to charge him with the crime.
Three attempts by the French authorities to extradite him and put him on trial have failed. Undeterred, French magistrates convicted him in absentia of murder in Paris in 2019 and sentenced him to 25 years.
In recent weeks, An Garda Síochána appointed a team to carry out a preliminary assessment of the investigation into the murder, in order to determine whether a full cold-case review is needed. Bailey himself has written to the Garda Commissioner asking for a cold-case review.
Sophie’s son, Pierre Louis, has also called for a cold-case review of his mother’s murder.
“It is probably the only thing we agree on,” remarks Bailey. “I’m very sympathetic and empathetic to her family. I’m aware they believe I’m Sophie du Plantier’s murderer. To them I say, I had nothing to do with the crime. My conscience is clear.”
Just days after Bailey met the Sunday Independent, the 25-year anniversary of the West Cork murder fell. Bailey knew he would be a figure of fascination to the media on that particular day.
“I’ll just turn off my phone on December 23, the anniversary, I’ll try and go off the grid a bit,” he shrugs. “I’ll keep as busy as I can on the day, I won’t dwell on it. I do actually like Christmas, even though it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The events of Christmas 1996, they changed mine and Jules’s life beyond recognition.”
Bailey says it’s clear the French are determined to hold him responsible.
“Technically, I’m an international fugitive. The French are still trying to get me. It doesn’t keep me awake at night. But until it’s over, it’s not over.
“I hope the truth comes out in my lifetime. I can’t do anything about what’s happened to me. I have to let it go. I’m not consumed by anger or resentment, and I’m not embittered. It’s a miracle I’m not.”
Did he ever meet Sophie?
“No, no, no,” he says, clearly irritated by a question posed to him many times over the years. “I never met or saw the woman in my life. I wouldn’t even have recognised her.”
He recounts the details of how he came to be synonymous with the murder of the mother-of-one.
“As everyone knows, I was a reporter, and I started to report on this terrible crime. I actually found my notes recently from reporting on the case.
“But within seven weeks, I was wrongly described as the ‘prime suspect’, which was a garda reference. My identity was forever altered. It’s been a quarter of a century ruined. It’s based on a dirty, stinking rotten lie.
“These past 25 years have been crazy, mad — and a travesty that’s been very trying on me and Jules, bless her. Really, 25 of our 30 years together were fouled by this.”
But before the murder of the French filmmaker, Bailey had a criminal history of violence against his ex-partner.
Jules Thomas was badly beaten by Bailey in 1993, 1996 and 2001. One beating left her with such serious facial injuries that she was hospitalised.
During a failed legal action taken by Bailey against the State over the garda investigation into Sophie’s murder, the Welsh artist gave evidence of how she was attacked by Bailey on a number of occasions. “All I can say and will say,” Bailey says slowly, “is that I know my behaviour was shameful.”
These assaults were mainly alcohol-fuelled and much has been made of his drinking habits. Does he still take a drink?
“I’ve had periods of total sobriety. I don’t drink spirits. I have the occasional pint and an occasional glass of wine with a meal.”
Much has also been made of the scratches on Ian Bailey’s arms, which were noted by gardaí after Sophie was found murdered.
“It’s no great mystery,” he says, clearly tired of discussing events from 25 years ago. “I had non-blood scratches from slaughtering three turkeys for Christmas and sawing down a tree. I absolutely did not have scratches on my face.”
What would Ian Bailey’s life look like, had Sophie Toscan du Plantier not been found beaten to death at the entrance to her holiday home at Dreenane, near Toormore, all those years ago?
“I don’t know. I don’t do retrospective. I don’t do ‘if only’. There is no point. I don’t go there.”
What is up for discussion is the future. Ian Bailey will turn 65 on January 27 and has plans to mark his milestone birthday.
“To make progress in this world, you need social media — the likes of Twitter, where I fight trolls, and Instagram. On my birthday, I’ll be doing a live stream of my poetry on YouTube. A friend of mine from Cork is helping me do it, and the tickets will be sold for €5 to an online audience. It’s something new and I’m very much looking forward to it.”
He was tight-lipped on the possibility of spending Christmas with his new lady friend, Ethna Staunton, who lives in Mayo. A fashion enthusiast in her 40s, she shares many of the musical and cultural interests of Bailey, and has won ‘Best Dressed Lady’ and ‘Best Hat’ competitions at Irish race meetings. She is also writing a book about Bailey’s life and is convinced of his innocence.
“She’s a lovely lady. She ticks a number of my boxes, she’s cultured and witty. Every now and then we get together, it’s still going strong. She’s caring and protective, and I am of her too. I don’t like to talk about it too much, in order to protect her.”
This past year has been “undoubtedly” one of Bailey’s most challenging yet, he agrees. “So I’ve developed what I call the alleviation prayer. I pray to be alleviated from fear, anxiety and apprehension.
“I use it as a coping mechanism and it’s a mantra I repeat. It works. I’m more spiritual than religious. You don’t lose anything by believing. My faith has grown, it’s solid and strong and warm.”
The circumstances of the killing of Sophie are, according to Ian Bailey, none of his business.
“I don’t need to know who murdered Sophie Toscan du Plantier,” he explains. “It would be nice to know.
“I just know that I didn’t do it.”