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‘There is probably a sigh of relief communally... it has consumed our lives’: West Cork after Ian Bailey

On a wet, dark Thursday in Schull - days after the chief suspect in Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murder had died - many people had a view on Bailey

Ian Bailey, the English journalist-turned-west Cork poet and pizza-maker, was seldom shy and retiring. It turns out that as recently as this month, he was bringing traffic to a standstill.

Kathleen Thornhill of Thornhill Electrical in Skibbereen recalled Bailey coming in to buy something and being so unsteady on his feet that she had to help him across the road.

“He was here last week or the week before,” Kathleen said. “He was getting an electric blanket, he was cold.”

She recalls that Bailey was still carrying his trusty walking stick, something more akin to a staff, but that even the balancing of that in one hand and the blanket in the other had proved too much for his failing co-ordination.

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“He put his hand on my shoulder,” Kathleen continued. “I stopped the traffic for him.”

‘The time of the [Du Plantier murder] he came in. He bought a dictaphone and a fax machine and charged it to the Guardian newspaper’

—  Kathleen Thornhill of Thornhill Electrical in Skibbereen

It was the last time she, husband Michael and their son, Richard, saw him, but it wasn’t the first time. Kathleen recalls Bailey, then a dark haired, energetic reporter, materialising through the shop door on Christmas Eve, 1996 – the day after the discovery of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’s body outside her home in Toormore.

“The time of the incident he came in,” she said. “He bought a Dictaphone and a fax machine and charged it to the Guardian newspaper.”

For much of his time in West Cork, Bailey seemed to exist in and around a golden triangle of Schull, Skibbereen and Glengarriff. His picaresque life way out west changed forever when he became a suspect for Du Plantier’s murder – an allegation he steadfastly denied for more than two decades, even if it appeared that he somehow fed off the attention that the case cast on him.

The French filmmaker’s badly beaten body was found by neighbours in a laneway near her holiday home in Schull on December 23rd, 1996. Nobody was ever charged in Ireland in connection with the killing of the 39-year-old but Bailey remained the chief suspect for her murder. He died of cardiac arrest on a street in Bantry last Sunday afternoon at the age of 66.

On the Mizen Peninsula more than one person referred to a collective sigh of relief at his death.

“He was definitely part of the West Cork tapestry,” said one shop owner in Skibbereen who had some dealings with Bailey but who did not wish to be named. She bought two copies of his poetry books but can’t recall anything about them, proving the poet to be more memorable than the verse.

“I found him to have a huge ego, but then at the same time, if you started a conversation and a topic he was very interested in he would probably see there was someone who was well read and I can speak to.”

“You wouldn’t trust him as far as you could throw him,” said another local, Richard Thornhill. He believes that Bailey “loved the attention” that came with his notoriety, while Michael Thornhill said that Bailey became so synonymous with west Cork that any time he had to attend a business meeting elsewhere in Ireland, a question about Bailey’s possible involvement in the murder would inevitably arise.

Another local business owner, who wished only to be referred to as Craig, believed Bailey was a ‘tooty, snooty, upper-class English eccentric’ – or at least someone who, he believed, played that role

The increased focus sparked by the West Cork podcasts and two subsequent television documentaries meant that in later years, Bailey – now ambling around in a trapper’s hat, every inch the crumbling frontiersman – seemed to become almost a macabre visitor attraction.

“After the Netflix one [the documentary] the amount of tourists was scary,” said Richard Thornhill.

Another local business owner, who wished only to be referred to as Craig, believed Bailey was a “tooty, snooty, upper-class English eccentric” – or at least someone who, he believed, played that role. Craig’s own accent indicates that he has arrived into west Cork from further afield, but for him, Bailey was not simply a colourful character.

“He used to turn up at the markets and push people about,” he maintained. “I’m glad it’s over, that it has come to some kind of an end.”

On a wet, dark Thursday in Schull, many people had a view on Bailey, even if there is still a sense of trying to say nothing. One man got up and left the room when Bailey’s name was mentioned, and for every person who saw him in a more favourable light, there is someone else with a different view.

One business owner who dealt with Bailey numerous times over the years but who did not wish to be named said: “There is probably a sigh of relief communally, and for him as well. It has consumed our lives for so long.”

She said the unwanted attention it brought to the area was “horrible”. As for Bailey, she found him polite, different, eccentric and “not normal” – someone who particularly in his later days was “always selling – he was trying to make a buck”. As for the Du Plantiers, she said: “It’s a horribly sad situation and I hope the family can get past it at some point.”

Stella Thery of Pebbles on the Main Street said of Bailey: “He loved the publicity and the notoriety,” adding that his presence in the area sometimes “didn’t feel healthy”, though he was unfailingly polite in all his dealings with her.

More than one person in Schull commented on how Bailey appeared to love the spotlight. But Amy Lou Pyburn, working in Barnett’s shop, owned by her father, stressed the distinction between the youthful Bailey and the latter-day, shambling older man.

“He would have come in here quite a bit,” Amy Lou said. “I thought he was always very arrogant. It is hard to separate what you know about him with just interacting with him. He was just arrogant and so false.”

She referred to the number of female staff in the shop and added: “Every time he came in he was so polite and gentle and I just felt he was trying to make a point.

“A lot of people would say how he was at the end of his life was nothing like how he was at the beginning,” she said, adding that her father, Eddie, recalled the younger Bailey.

“He was so intimidating,” Amy Lou said. “He had to make his presence known. He made a lot of people uncomfortable.”

Amy Lou is from a younger generation and as soon as she heard the news of Bailey’s death last Sunday, she rewatched the Netflix documentary on the Du Plantier case.

‘He started making “merch”. The fact that he had that name for himself and was profiting of it says a lot about him as well, I think’

—  Amy Lou Pyburn, of Barretts in Schull

“I just found it infuriating to watch,” she said, referring to Bailey “dancing around his garden” as if, in her view, to pose the question, “‘how could I have done this?’”

“It very much became the Ian Bailey Show,” Amy Lou said. “It was no longer about Sophie. He became a celebrity in the summer around here. There were people my age going up to him and taking their picture with him.

“He started making ‘merch’. The fact that he had that name for himself and was profiting of it says a lot about him as well, I think.

“He loved it. That’s what he spent his days at the market. What would have made him so miserable would have been if everyone ignored him.”

Further down the street and dodging the rain thanks to his wine-coloured fedora was John D’Alton, owner of D’Altons Bar. Bailey hadn’t been a patron there for some time, and for a reason.

“He was barred,” he said matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t because he was unpleasant to me but I didn’t want the place to become an occasion for gowls.”

He is similarly blunt about Bailey’s poetry – “doggerel” – and his apparent desire for attention, which he described as “childish”.

Back at Thornhills Electrical in Skibbereen, there is a little more sympathy for Bailey, with Kathleen Thornhill referring to how he had been unable to attend his mother’s funeral in England due to the looming threat of extradition to France from the UK.

“For him, in a way, it’s good,” Kathleen said of his death. “He had done a life sentence whether he did it or whether he hadn’t done it.”

As for Du Plantier’s murder, and whether the enigmatic Englishman had anything to do with it, the mystery lingers across Bailey’s old haunts in west Cork and beyond.

“There is only one guy who can judge him now,” Richard Thornhill said. “And he’s just met him.”

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