Almost a decade ago, I attended a ceremony on a chilly hillside outside Schull to mark the anniversary of Sophie Toscan du Plantier's death.
Her parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, are now too old and frail to travel from France for the annual ceremony, but for more than 15 years they came to West Cork each December, laid a wreath of lilies at the Celtic stone cross that marks the spot where their daughter's body was found, then went to Mass in Goleen. Each year, they would appeal to the public to help with the garda investigation.
I attended almost every year but, on this occasion it involved the staging of a candlelit vigil at the stone cross. As I stood a short distance away on the darkened laneway with a photographer, the family insisted that we come into their daughter's beloved holiday home to sit by the fire, have a warm drink and await the start of the ceremony. Neither of us wanted to intrude at this solemn time, but they insisted with a hospitality that reminded me that sometimes life inflicts unforgivably evil things on good people.
For her entire family, the manner of Sophie's death remains an unspeakable horror. Marguerite Bouniol once said that her fear was that she would not live to see her daughter's killer brought to justice.
The killing of the 39-year-old mother-of-one just days before Christmas in 1996 also left a scar on the West Cork psyche that has still not healed, as much because of the shocking brutality of the crime as the fact her killer still roams free.
Such is the international profile of the case that a major TV documentary by the award-winning Irish director Jim Sheridan, investigative reporter Donal MacIntyre and playwright Michael Sheridan is due to be released later this summer. It had been hoped, before the Covid-19 pandemic, that it would receive its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The case has already been the focus of an Audible podcast series, West Cork.
Sophie's death sparked one of the biggest murder hunts in garda history and two cold-case reviews. The fallout from the failure to bring the killer to justice has been seismic and resulted in high-profile complaints against the gardaí, the media and even the judicial system.
Ian Bailey (62), a Manchester-born freelance journalist, poet, law student and 'New Age' gardener, was arrested by gardaí in 1997 and 1998 for questioning but was released without charge on both occasions.
He had moved to Ireland in 1991 to start a new life, having worked as a freelance journalist in Gloucester and Cheltenham. Irish life and culture captivated him and, for a time, he preferred to be known as Eoin O'Baille, writing poetry and prose inspired by the Irish landscape and history.
In 1996, he was attempting to revive his journalistic career and, in the days after the murder, he reported on the case for Irish, UK and French publications as a freelancer. Bailey has consistently maintained his innocence and further claimed that attempts were made to frame him for the killing.
Last year, he told me in an interview for my forthcoming book on the case, A Dream of Death, that he felt "bonfired" by wrongful association with the case and feared "the nightmare will only end with my death". Bluntly, he said it had destroyed his life.
In May last year, Bailey was convicted in absentia by a Paris criminal court of the murder of Sophie in a trial that followed a decade-long investigation by a French magistrate and a team of elite detectives. Under Napoleonic law, the murder of a French citizen can be prosecuted in a French court, no matter where it occurred. A case can also be taken even if the accused person refuses to travel to France.
Evidence that had in effect been rejected by the Irish judicial system was able to be offered to the three trial magistrates. Bailey was sentenced to 25 years in prison and later fined €200,000.
For the third time, the French authorities are seeking his extradition - a process that Bailey has vowed since 2012 to fight tooth-and-nail. The High Court is set to hear the matter this summer. Few doubt that the case will again arrive before the Supreme Court.
Bailey has stressed he feared that if he was extradited to Paris, he faces the likely prospect of dying in a French prison. He described the French proceedings as "a show trial" and that he was "guilty before the trial even opened".
For the French, the Paris trial was proof that the problems around the case were as much about the intricacies of the Anglo-Saxon system of justice that Ireland inherited from British rule as it was about crucial failings in the early days of the Irish investigation.
The Irish Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ruled that Bailey did not have a case to answer and ruled out a charge in 2001. DPP officials had cited the lack of evidence and raised doubts about one witness on which the garda case file seemed to overly rely.
In France, the circumstantial evidence was deemed enough not just to warrant a charge but to secure a conviction. If Bailey is extradited, the French will immediately order a fresh trial. While the Paris murder trial has put the case in the international spotlight, Sophie's killing has continued to make headlines in Ireland since her body was found on a lonely West Cork laneway shortly after 10am on December 23, 1996.
Bailey was identified by one tabloid hours after being released following his first arrest in 1997. Days later, he agreed to a radio interview with Pat Kenny on RTÉ - and far from removing himself from the spotlight, it made him a fixture of the case coverage for years to come.
In 2003, he took defamation proceedings against eight Irish and British newspapers. He spectacularly lost most of these after a two-week civil hearing that made headlines in Ireland, the UK and France with its revelations about his personal life. The case brought key elements of the garda investigation into the public domain for the first time and, in hindsight, became the starting point for the French to seek their own prosecution 16 years later.
Bailey also lodged a complaint with the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) amid allegations there had been an official conspiracy against him. GSOC ruled it found no evidence of this but its lengthy report did highlight serious issues of concern over the original investigation, ranging from pages being missing from key station reports to the loss of critical evidence including a large metal gate which is believed to have been spattered with Sophie's blood. A bottle of expensive French wine found in a ditch near the scene also vanished from evidence storage.
In 2014, Bailey fought and lost a High Court action against Ireland and the gardaí after he alleged that he had been wrongfully arrested. That High Court action proved one of the longest-running in history and included astonishing claims about the gardaí and several key witnesses in the original murder file. Far from fading from the headlines, the case has generated more newspaper column inches and broadcasts over recent years than it did in 1996.
Such controversies stand in stark contrast to the stance adopted by Sophie's family and friends. Her son, Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud, was just 15 when his mother was killed. Since 1996, the family have fought for justice with a grace and dignity that has inspired all who met them.
They have refused to be drawn into a damaging war of words between Ireland and France over the failings in the original investigation, while remaining adamant they will never falter in their campaign to bring the killer to justice.
From the outset, the spotlight on the investigation was intense because Sophie was married to Daniel du Plantier, one of the most powerful and influential men within the French film industry. A friend of leading politicians and industrialists, he had powerful allies in France who over time would grow frustrated at the lack of progress in Ireland with the investigation.
At first, gardaí believed the crime would be solved relatively quickly - most likely by forensic evidence left, they had no doubt, by the killer during his frenzied attack. Detectives were initially baffled and later left deeply frustrated when evidence from the scene failed to yield the breakthrough they so desperately needed.
The film executive's body was left so battered that the first person to come across the scene initially thought the object lying by the roadside was a pile of torn clothing. She was beaten to death after she tried to flee from her assailant down the winding laneway leading from the house to the main road. It is believed she confronted the killer outside the house, having gone out to investigate a noise.
As she ran, wearing nightclothes and a pair of boots, she made it some 100 metres from her home before her clothing apparently snagged on a piece of barbed wire. It was all the time her killer needed to catch her and beat her to the ground. The assault which followed by brutal and merciless with the helpless French woman being beaten with a concrete block and possibly a flat stone.
It was almost beyond belief that, despite the extreme violence and obviously unplanned nature of the killing, evidence at the scene failed to deliver the vital clues that detectives needed. Hair strands found in Sophie's clenched fist proved to be torn from her own head.
Sophie had visited West Cork alone in December 1996, wanting a short break before spending Christmas in France before flying overseas for a New Year holiday with her husband. The couple were planning their first child.
The Toormore house where she had been staying was idyllic in summer because it was isolated, but it was brooding and lonely in winter. Yet she adored it, describing it as her dream home and an escape from the pressures of her professional and social life in France. After her death, Pierre-Louis decided to retain the property as a memorial to her.
Inside the spartan house, in the aftermath of her death, detectives found a book of poetry by William Butler Yeats. It had been left open at a poem entitled 'A Dream of Death'. It was presumed that Sophie had been reading it in the hours before being attacked. She had been due to head to Cork Airport to return to France the next day.
'A Dream of Death' by Ralph Riegel is published by Gill Books, €16.99, on June 5
The High Court will next month hear a French bid to have Ian Bailey extradited to Paris over his conviction in a murder trial conducted in his absence last year.
It represents the third French attempt to have Bailey extradited in just over eight years.
The first ended up before the Supreme Court, which, in March 2012, unanimously ruled in favour of Bailey. A second case just over four years later did not make it past the High Court.
However, the current case will make history on the basis that one EU member state is seeking the extradition of a person convicted of murder under its legal system but for a crime that occurred in another.
Making things even more problematic is the fact the person at the centre of the extradition hearing is a citizen of a third European country.
In tandem with this, Bailey has signalled that he will take a case to the European Court of Human Rights against the French decision to prosecute him in the first place.
Bailey is also set to face an unrelated matter before Bantry District Court in coming weeks. The poet faces a total of four charges arising from an alleged incident at 9pm on August 25 last year.
Bailey was stopped by gardaí while driving at a townland outside Schull and was later taken to Bantry Garda Station. He was released without charge.
Bailey issued a statement 24 hours after the incident in response to media reports.
"I can confirm that on Sunday evening last, I was stopped at a garda checkpoint outside Schull. I failed a roadside breathalyser test. At that point, I was taken to Bantry Garda Station where I subsequently passed the electronic [alcohol] test. The treatment by gardaí towards me was courteous at all times," he said.
He declined to comment further.
He appeared before Bantry District Court on four summonses on the basis of samples taken by gardaí and sent for further analysis.
Bailey faces one summons over allegedly driving while under the influence of cannabis, two summonses over the alleged possession of cannabis and one summons for allegedly allowing his vehicle to be used for the possession of cannabis.
The case has twice been adjourned but is expected to proceed at Bantry District Court in June or July.
French authorities have made an “unprecedented” and “unorthodox" request to view the legal submissions on Ian Bailey's objections to his extradition there, the High Court has heard.