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Patrick J. O Brien

In death, Ireland’s most notorious murder suspect Ian Bailey still casts a disturbing spell

The cottage of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier which still remains in the family name today. (Image courtesy of author)
The cottage of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier which still remains in the family name today. (Image courtesy of author)

For journalists like me, Ian Bailey was a man of contradictions, a man of many moods. I remember in my youth spotting him on many occasions wondering around my home city with an ego and arrogance that many found unpalatable considering the gruesome crime for which he was the prime suspect. We all knew that Bailey was a bit of an odd ball and that he had a history of domestic violence and abuse against women but his background as a journalist gave him a front row seat in maintaining a media profile and at times, he was a constant in manipulating the press. Known as a loudmouth blow-in in his home Bantry, county Cork he was often seen spewing out statements about the crime to whoever was willing to listen.  

The sudden death this month of Ian Bailey at the age of 66 closed a chapter but not the book in what was arguably Ireland’s most notorious unsolved murder. In life, Ian Bailey entangled himself in lies and contradictions. As a man who projected himself as grievously wronged, he courted the media at every opportunity. His global notoriety grew when the murder was the subject of Sky’s television, Murder at the Cottage and Netflix’s, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork. 

French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier had visited Ireland many times as a teenager and her dream became a reality when in 1993, she bought a cottage outside the idyllic town of Schull in West Cork and would regularly make trips from her home in Paris, accompanied by her young son, Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud. Though remote, the area was a welcoming, cosmopolitan one, attracting an international crowd known as ‘blow-ins’ and boasting an almost non-existent crime rate. She travelled to the cottage alone on December 20, 1996, planning to return to Paris in time for Christmas. On the morning of December 23, her body was discovered on a path outside the house by her neighbour, Shirley Foster, with multiple head injuries; a blood-stained piece of slate and concrete block was discovered at the scene. 

Ian Bailey who lived almost two miles aways from the murder scene in 1996 was given a 25-year sentence in 2019 after a court in Paris found him guilty. The Irish police have been heavily criticised for mishandling on this case however, where evidence saw several items including the bloodstained gate going missing in their custody brought into question. They were alleged to have coerced and intimidated witnesses, including the prime suspect himself.  A report noted that records of the police investigation had been altered and several pages removed, although this had taken place sometime after the initial investigation. The incredible blunders made by the Irish police after the aftermath included failing to secure the local environment and crime scene. That failure allowed dozens of people to freely leave Irish territory without cross-check or monitoring. While investigators could have focused on the possibility that someone from France was stalking Sophie during her last days in Schull, they instead patched together a case against Ian Bailey, a journalist with a colourful local history. The long investigation did not meet the standards expected of a capital case. 

Police arrested Bailey twice, but prosecutors did not charge him, citing insufficient evidence, leaving the crime unresolved and Bailey as an enigmatic protagonist in a cottage industry of true crime books, documentaries and podcasts. The story of the murder, along with Ian Bailey’s arrests in connection with it, have been the subject of multiple documentaries and podcasts while Mr Bailey himself built up a social media following in recent years. Ian Bailey was his own worst enemy, admitting some of his statements to police probably raised their suspicions. “I regret saying certain things,” he said. “I was very unwise to assume they grasped my use of irony and satire. It didn’t do me any good.” 

During his last few years, Ian Bailey was a constant in his town square, wearing a battered straw hat with a pigtail protruding from the back and clothes that appeared to date back to some long-forgotten time, the image this imposing 6ft 4in man wished to present was that of an eccentric and harmless New Age hippie. He sometimes asked people to buy books of his poetry in exchange for taking selfies with him, aware of his notoriety, he was eccentric, amusing yet cunning. 

In a statement the Irish police said the investigation into the murder remained “active and ongoing” with assistance from the Police serious crime review team. From my perspective I believe the truth has died with Bailey and the fact that he was cremated with no bystanders presents shows that the majority of people knew he committed this crime. It seems the Irish police have failed the family of Sophie and even in death Ian Bailey leaves a casting spell in the belief that for almost 25 years he got away with murder 

About the Author
Patrick J O Brien is an acclaimed journalist and Director of Exante who has been working in the media for almost 25 years. Patrick who hails from Ireland is based in Malta and a contributor to some of the world’s leading financial and political magazines. Recently he returned from Ukraine where he was reporting at ground level on the escalation of war and spent time documenting the work of the Red Cross and many human right organisations