Playing the role of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in Jim Sheridan’s recent documentary, Niamh Hayes says the secrets of that night the Frenchwoman was brutally murdered are still in the air
I WAS six-years-old when Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in West Cork. I don’t remember much about the story at the time, but as I grew up, I, like many others my age, became fascinated with the story due to the plethora of articles, reports, books and of course the world-famous podcast and television series’ that have come out in recent years.
As a rowing family, we have been travelling to Schull regatta for the last 25 years or so, and when wandering around the harbour and village, there was always a sense of wonder in the air – wonder as to whether Sophie spent time in the exact spots we were hanging out in, wonder as to whether anyone around knew more information than they were letting on, wonder as to whether the secrets of the events of December 23rd, 1996, would be revealed or remain hidden forever.
Some of my nearest and dearest are true crime fanatics and because I’ve been immersed in countless conversations and discussions about real life crime stories, I began to pick up an interest in it myself. Listening to the West Cork podcast was certainly the pinnacle point where my interest in Sophie’s story really arose.
I visited Schull on my 29th birthday and found myself wanting to seek out the sites talked about in the podcast, to see if I could make any sense of the whole thing.
A year and a half later, I got a call from a friend of mine who was working on the Sky documentary to ask if I was free to travel to Schull the following day.
The French actress they had lined up to film the part of Sophie was no longer available and they needed a short, blonde person.
At 5ft 2in, with long blonde hair, I somewhat fit the bill. Over the course of the following six months, I spent time with Jim Sheridan and his crew filming reconstruction scenes in Schull, Crookhaven, Barleycove, Three Castle Head and near Sophie’s home.
I have worked in television production for over six years, so the filming side of things was a breeze, albeit I had always been behind the camera up to this point.
The hard part was attempting to get inside Sophie’s head. A French woman, in a small West Cork town, being part of the community but keeping a distance and not getting too close.
There were a few scenes that I felt particularly close to her, including a scene we filmed at Three Castle Head. It was just me and the cameraman, nobody else around.
I walked around the headland, around the castle, along the shoreline of the lake with the camera and drone following me.
Everyone says it, but there is something about that place. The eeriness, the isolation. I felt it and I had someone nearby. I can’t imagine how lonely it is up there by yourself, as Sophie was the day before she was murdered.
I filmed a scene in O’Sullivan’s Bar in Crookhaven.
Sophie also visited there the day before she died. I sat at the counter re-enacting her last known movements as she drank tea and ate a scone, chatting to owner Billy O’Sullivan.
I got a chance to talk to Billy that day, both on and off camera and he helped me get a sense of who Sophie was. A wonderful, polite lady by all accounts.
Something I will never forget, and which will stay with me for the rest of my life, is filming scenes near where she was murdered. To be near her house, walking down the laneway she travelled on so often and laying on the ground near where her body was found, was a harrowing experience.
While remaining respectful to her memory, I tried to sense the fear she felt that night. That fear was there, it was all around me, I couldn’t do anything but feel it.
It’s as if the secrets of that night are still in the air just waiting for someone to set them free.
In the end, Jim decided to use reconstruction footage that was filmed in 1997, in the months after Sophie’s death.
In my opinion it was the right choice as it is much more realistic and has the look of the time. I do still feature in scenes walking along Barleycove beach, and on the clifftop looking out at sea.
My work sure does take me to unique places and experiences, and this was definitely one of those.
I really do hope justice for Sophie is found one day.