How the West Cork podcast inspired Louise O'Neill's acclaimed new book, 'After the Silence'

'There she was at the centre of it all. Sophie. Staring out at us from the pages of newspapers'
How the West Cork podcast inspired Louise O'Neill's acclaimed new book, 'After the Silence'
Louise O'Neill's new book was inspired by the West Cork podcast. Pictures: Miki Barlok

I was listening to a podcast recently when the host began to talk about her father’s obsession with John F Kennedy, one he shared with so many other men of his generation.

Why? she asked him. Why do you read every book and watch every documentary? Don’t you know enough about it now? 

Her father shook his head at his daughter’s naivety. "The day JFK died," he said, "is the moment my childhood ended."

In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote that, “Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. Darkness, once gazed upon, can be never be lost”. 

Louise O'Neill. Picture: Miki Barlok
Louise O'Neill. Picture: Miki Barlok

I think my own loss of innocence was slower, an unravelling of sorts, like Susan of Narnia being decried for her new interest in “nylons and lipsticks and invitations”. Like Susan, I could also be, “a jolly sight too keen on being grown up”. 

But if I was to try and pinpoint such a pivotal moment, the Christmas of 1996 would be a good place to begin. I was 11 years of age and Sophie Toscan du Plantier had been murdered, shaking the people of West Cork to our very core. 

I knew Schull well; one of my mother’s friends taught in the secondary school there and we attended the Meitheal festival every February. We had rented a house in the village the summer before, my sister and I reading Sweet Valley High books we’d borrowed from the local library as my mother dozed on a sunbed in the overgrown garden, swatting away bees that flew too close to her face. 

We were given permission to roam freely, to come and go as we pleased. The front door was left unlocked; I’m not sure we even knew where the key was. We had no need of it. Bad things didn’t happen here, not to people like us. We thought we were safe.

In the 90s, I remember feeling excited any time I heard Ireland referenced in pop culture. U2 mentioned as a character’s favourite band in a book, Elton saying he can’t find his Cranberries CD in Clueless, Fun Bobby wanting to make his coffee ‘Irish’ in Friends

This acknowledgment of our existence made me feel seen, somehow, as if I wasn’t just a young girl living in a small town in a relatively insignificant country at the edge of Europe, but I mattered. This island mattered. But the fame, or infamy, that accompanied the murder was an uncomfortable one. 

After the Silence by Louise O'Neill
After the Silence by Louise O'Neill

The portrayal of our people as backward and insular, our police as fumbling and clodhopping, the mistakes made jaw-droppingly stupid, but what else could you expect from the Paddys? It felt humiliating, even more so when time passed and still, no one had been brought to justice. 

And there she was at the centre of it all. Sophie. Staring out at us from the pages of newspapers and magazines, her ethereal beauty almost like a rebuke.

It was February 2018 when I first heard about the West Cork podcast. The 13-part audible series had been three years in the making and was already drawing comparisons to the smash hit podcasts, Serial and S-Town.

 The co-hosts, Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, had gained extraordinary access to those involved; interviewing locals, members of Sophie’s family, detectives who worked on the case, and, of course, Ian Bailey. 

I started the first episode that afternoon and by 2am, I was in the middle of a full-on binge. My eyes open in the dark as I listened to the eerie sound of a low wind whistling, its evocation of a barren, lonely landscape where no one would hear you screaming for help. A sensation of dread curdling in my stomach but something else, too, something more familiar. That same feeling of being seen, the one I’d experienced as a child. 

This podcast was making headlines all around the world, it was being cited as the next big thing in true crime, and it had been created in and of my homeplace. 

As I listened, I was surprised by how much I was learning about a case I thought I knew everything about. My certainty about what had happened and who was responsible breaking apart in my hands, the fragments left behind sharp enough to cut yourself open on. I think some part of me had foolishly hoped that by the end of the 13 episodes, the murderer would be found and Sophie’s family could have peace, at last. 

But these things are rarely tied up as neatly in real life as they are in fiction. By the end of the podcast, I didn’t have definite theories about what happened that night. 

He did it, she did it, a horse did it

No, I didn’t know what the truth was. 

It was too complex, and I had no desire to play detective with such a story. All I was left with was an aching, hollowing sorrow. For Sophie, who had chosen our country and believed she could be safe here. For Pierre-Louis, who returns to Schull every year, to the house his mother loved so dearly. For his children, who will never know their grandmother. It is a tragedy beyond measure.

For months afterwards, I could not stop thinking about the podcast. Not necessarily about this particular case, but what its aftermath said about us as a people. 

For over two decades, I had held onto a child-like understanding of what had unfolded that night, and now I was being forced to reckon with that as an adult. I had to re-examine all my pre-held notions and ideas, hold them up to the light, and see where the cracks were. 

Picture: Miki Barlok
Picture: Miki Barlok

The uneasy symbiotic relationship between locals and ‘blow-ins’ in small communities such as ours, how quick we are to exile those who transgress our unspoken rules. The shadows of post-colonialism cast long, the inherited wariness of the Englishman embedded in our very DNA, keeping the dreaded Sasanach at arm’s length. The desire to belong that’s inherent in all humans and who we believe has the right to claim it. 

As a feminist, I must admit it was startling to see how sexist some of the media coverage had been. The insinuations about Sophie’s love life, the inherent victim-blaming within. The not-so subtle judging her decision to leave her son at Christmas time. The constant accounts, as even I have done here, of her physicality; as if her beauty somehow made the crime even more egregious. 

I also started to wonder about the wives of other men who have been accused of similar crimes, how often we say, “why do they stay?” and the uncanny echoing of the language we use when we talk about victims of domestic abuse  —“why don’t these women leave?” 

What would it be like, I wondered, to live in a such a small, tight-knit community and to lose one of your own, and to be forced to continue to live with the person you believe is responsible? To have your home scrutinised by outsiders who know nothing of your way of life, and to be found wanting by them? What impact does that have on those left behind? And why, I wondered, would these people participate in a true crime documentary? What purpose would it serve?

While the story I tell in my new novel, After the Silence, is not based on this or any other real-life case, the questions raised by the West Cork podcast did spark the initial idea. 

The book is set on a small island off the coast of West Cork, Inisrún, where a glamourous, family called the Kinsellas, have set up an artist’s retreat centre. The youngest Kinsella son, Henry, has married a local woman, Keelin, and it’s during her 36th birthday party that a wild storm engulfs the island, cutting them off from the mainland. 

The next morning, the body of a young woman is found. No one can get off the island and no one can get on, either. It has to be someone there who did this… 

Ten years later, the murder of Nessa Crowley still haunts the Irish people. And so, a team of documentary makers come to the island, determined to find out exactly what happened that night. After the Silence is a story about love and fear, rumours and whispers. It’s about the secrets we keep and the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

Credit: Photos by Miki Barlok. Hair and make up: Shkurta Lisa Hasani 

After The Silence by Louise is O’Neill is published in trade paperback by Riverrun, September 3, £13.99 (€15.55).

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