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Fintan O'Toole: Ian Bailey deflects us from the reality of violent misogyny

There are 40 unsolved murders of women in Ireland since 1996. The obsession with one case is a way of avoiding this truth

A drunken vainglorious lout. WB Yeats fashioned the phrase for John MacBride.* But it is a perfect fit for Ian Bailey, a nasty drunk, a narcissistic fantasist and a man who violently assaulted his female partner. *

And yet, over and over, journalists feed his habit. They peddle to him the drug of notoriety.

Bailey is famous for one reason only – that he may or may not have beaten a woman to death 25 years ago. That is enough for at least a dozen stories about him in Irish newspapers in the past week alone. He is the black hole of Irish journalism, sucking in attention and emitting nothing of any value.

Nothing is precisely all that remains to be said about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in 1996. Books, articles, three court trials, a vast podcast and two different documentary series have left us exactly where we were when her body was discovered: in the dark.


This story pretends to be a search for knowledge. It cannot be that, because this crime will never be solved. It is instead a wallowing in willed ignorance. It is a way of not knowing. The thing that is unknown is the vicious ordinariness of violence against women.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was not the first woman murdered in the Republic in 1996. She was the 19th of 20.

Nor is hers the only mystery. Her killing is one of five femicides from that year for which no one has been brought to justice. Even from that single month of December 1996, there are three women for whose violent deaths no one has been held to account: Sophie, Geraldine Diver and Belinda Pereira.

Forty Sophies

Sophie’s murder is framed as a unique event because it happened in idyllic west Cork just before Christmas, the combination of these two circumstances giving it a peerless poignancy. But the previous Christmas Eve, Julia O’Brien was kicked, battered and strangled to death in west Cork. Who remembers her or the suspended sentences given to her killer?

In the 25 years since Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered, 240 women have died violently in the Republic. Analysis by Women’s Aid shows that at least 40 of those cases remain unresolved. There are 40 Sophies, but only one seems to count.

It seems to me that there are three reasons for this disparity of interest. One is the obvious combination of youth, beauty and social class. Middle-aged, unglamorous and ordinary women are less visible, even in death.

But this story also has elements that lend themselves to a particular kind of not-knowing. They allow it to function as a giant deflector, redirecting our attention away from what is all too painfully obvious.


The first of these elements is foreignness. Sophie Toscan du Plantier was French. Ian Bailey is English. Every recounting of the story starts by evoking the idea of west Cork as a colony of blow-ins, a part of Ireland that Irish people barely inhabit.

This is very convenient. Irish women are, in general, not murdered by foreigners or blow-ins or exotic strangers. They are, typically, killed in their own homes by their partners or ex-partners, by family members or by men they know well. A very good way to forget this is to return, again and again, to the French woman and the English suspect, neither of them really “us”.

The other convenient element of the story is its very air of mystery. It is striking that both recent documentary series indulged themselves in supernatural hokum: an undead hag appearing to warn the victim; a psychic having premonitions of evil.

This slippage from mystery to mystification is also oddly comforting. It takes a story that has happened 240 times in the past 25 years and embodies it in a timeless, Gothic tale of dark forces beyond our ken.

But there is nothing either mysterious or mystical about what happens to women at the hands of violent misogynists. They are punched, kicked, stabbed, strangled, battered. Their hair is pulled out. Their teeth are knocked in. Usually, they live with this trauma. Sometimes, they die from it.

Commonplace process

The killing of women is usually not an event. It is a process. It is the culmination of a gradually escalating reign of terror. This process is mundane, banal and commonplace. It is very much within our ken – there for anyone who cares to look. Most women experience at least the beginnings of this progression at some time in their lives.

But it’s much more intriguing to think about what the Garda did or did not do in one case 25 years ago than it is to get our heads around the fact that, up to last year, more than one in 20 calls to the Garda about domestic violence was cancelled without a response.

So enough of the drunken vainglorious lout. It is grotesque that one boring, self-absorbed man sucks up nearly all the psychic energy that our public discourse devotes to violence against women.

Bailey fills a space. He allows us to pretend to be talking about violent misogyny when we are, in fact, avoiding that very subject. It is long since time for him to step out of our light.

* This article was amended on July 22nd, 2021