The death of French film-maker Sophie Toscan du Plantier on December 23rd, 1996, occupies a peculiar place in the Irish psyche. There is the collective shame a small nation holds when a visitor is attacked or killed. There is also the fact that Sophie Toscan du Plantier the person has been overshadowed by the main suspect in the case, Ian Bailey, a British citizen living in Schull, Co Cork. Most people in Ireland familiar with the case hold at least one strong opinion about Bailey, who denies involvement in the murder.
There's also a feeling that the case is tangled in its own unravelled investigations and court cases. It's a case that keeps rearing its head, the latest development being that Bailey has failed to halt a French homicide trial.
Now, a 13-part podcast pores over the case again, the latest in long-form podcasting focusing on true crime. West Cork, released on Thursday by Amazon company Audible, is the result of three years' reporting, research, and interviewing by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde. Forde and Bungey both studied in Dublin. As well as creating this podcast, Forde is a TV documentary producer and researcher, and Bungey is a journalist, who worked on the Irish magazine Mongrel, and has also written for the Guardian and This American Life.
We had a few curious run-ins with Ian Bailey, and got to know him. It drew us in. West Cork was just a captivating place
Ireland in 1996 feels like a different country, a place reeling from the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf, where Garda Jerry McCabe was shot dead in Limerick, and journalist Veronica Guerin shot dead in Dublin. The constitutional ban on divorce was repealed after a stunningly narrow referendum win. Michael Collins was in cinemas, and Ireland won the Eurovision with The Voice. And at Christmas, the news was taken over by the discovery of a Frenchwoman's body outside her holiday home near Schull, in west Cork. It's that sense of place that forms the easel on which Bungey and Forde paint the story of her death and the subsequent investigation.
Wisely, West Cork is essentially chronological. Bungey and Forde initially read about the case in a UK newspaper, and then sat in on Bailey's 2014 case against the State in the High Court in Dublin.
“The first intriguing thing for us was the disparity between what we read in the newspaper and the way the whole case was framed,” says Bungey. “In the paper we read this straightforward case of a man potentially wrongfully accused taking on the State. And then we came to Dublin and found that it was a much more complicated story, and also everyone we spoke to was so well-versed in the story, had opinions. Then we had a few curious run-ins with Ian Bailey, and got to know him. It drew us in. West Cork was just a captivating place.”
“Definitely a lot of people we spoke to thought we would have our work cut out because it was such a sensitive story,” says Forde, “that people would be anxious about speaking, or have fatigue about it. Because we were doing something for audio, we were able to spend a lot of time there, and managed to get around to so many people . . . I feel like we got pretty close to what we always hoped we could do.”
What Forde and Bungey do is go back to the start, go back to the place, go back to the people. Across the podcast, the breadth of their research and interviews is impressive. There are Toscan du Plantier’s family members, gardaí involved in the investigation, journalists who reported on it, locals who were involved in the case, people with conflicting theories, memories and versions of the truth. And there is other source material, such as a video tape of the local Christmas swim, where Bailey happens to offer a bizarre and shocking soundbite. There are the Bandon tapes, the secret recordings of Garda station phone calls. There is radio archive from the time.
There is also Bailey himself, who appears early on, but is only revealed as a person of interest as the episodes progress – hardly a spoiler for an Irish audience, but a dramatic moment for those new to the case, one imagines.
All of this is produced to a high standard, weaving a narrative that encourages binge-listening.
It could be argued in an Irish context there has been almost too much reporting on the case, but West Cork repositions events and information in a way that offers a deeper and more manageable understanding of the events as they occurred than can be garnered from years of memories of newspaper, radio and television reports.
For those too young to have followed the case, it's an eye-opening study of an investigation. For those unfamiliar with the case, particularly outside of Ireland, it depicts mysterious and often absurd carry-on. West Cork offers not just an outside perspective, but the perspective of time, stepping back and untangling narratives.
We were really conscious on many levels this isn't our story to tell. We are outsiders
Forde and Bungey didn’t set out to solve the case, either. “If that was our only mission, that would be misplaced, that it would leave listeners shortchanged,” says Forde. “We’re not investigators. There have been incredibly experienced investigators and also journalists who have looked into this for so many years. I don’t think we went in thinking we could find the smoking gun. But hopefully by telling the story in the way that we have, you provide clarity in a case that has been pulled in so many directions by competing narratives.”
For many Irish listeners, West Cork will be the first time a podcast approaches a local story with the same depth of stories in Maryland (Serial season one) or Alabama (S-Town). That outsider perspective is always intriguing. Forde and Bungey say they were guided by the principle of letting those involved tell their stories, and that the co-operation of Toscan du Plantier's family was paramount. "We were really conscious on many levels this isn't our story to tell. We are outsiders," Forde says.
But sometimes it takes just that to reframe a familiar picture, one that after two decades can still portray something new.
All 13 episodes of 'West Cork' are released today on Audible. audible.co.uk/westcork