The ragged, old woman knocked on the Head Master’s door in a quiet, respectful way as if she didn’t expect an answer. ‘Come in,’ said a familiar voice still retaining that Irish lilt he had always had. She entered and saw him sitting at his desk, an open bible in front of him. ‘Sorry to bother you brother but I’m in need of some help.’ He stood and offered her a chair, ‘Tell me Mrs Ward, what troubles you so? You look so worried.’ The old woman sat, fingers interlaced, nervously rotating her thumbs. ‘It’s my granddaughter, Kathleen. I fear she is in danger.’ The man closed the book and listened closely to her as she unburdened herself. When she had finished he knew he had to act and act fast. ‘I promise you, I will not rest until she is returned home to you.’ When the old woman had gone the headmaster pondered the problem facing him. This was a delicate matter and it needed quick action but who should he ask to help him with this? He decided to approach two trustworthy men from the area he could rely on. There was so much to do with the mighty Corinthians arriving in Glasgow in a few days to play Celtic but some things took priority over even that.
Saturday night on the Saltmarket was not for the fainthearted. People of all ages crowded the pavements, many in a state of drunkenness. Ragged children seemingly, free to roam the streets despite the lateness of the hour played or waited to dip the pockets of sleeping drunks. Fiddle music mingling with laughter and singing, poured from the doorways of taverns which were doing a roaring trade. Higher up the street nearer Glasgow cross a brawl between two men was being watched by a cheering crowd of onlookers who took it as a normal part of life in this part of town. Some were even betting on the outcome.
The two men huddled in their heavy coats against the January chill made their way down the street, avoiding the stares of local toughs who knew a stranger when they saw one and were always on the lookout for the Police. John Buckley and Pat Coll reached the dimly lit Wynd they were looking for but as they turned into the alleyway a gruff Irish voice from the shadows halted them. ‘Can I be helping you two gentlemen who seem so lost this night?’ A stocky man of about twenty five, with a cruel scar on his left cheek, stood in front of them, behind him four others watched with hostile eyes. ‘We have an appointment with Mr O’Roirdan,’ one of the men replied, ‘you’d do well not to hinder us.’ The mention of one of the east end’s more notorious characters perceptibly changed the man’s demeanour. ‘Have you now, you won’t mind if we check you first then?’ he said, reaching forward and opening the Pat Coll’s overcoat. He frisked him briefly before nodding curtly for him to pass. As he moved towards the second man he stopped, a glimmer of recognition crossing his face. ‘You won’t need to search me Thomas, your old man and I came on the boat from Derry together.’ The young tough smiled, ‘ah tis you Mr Buckley, no need indeed but I’d best do it anyway.’ When he finished, he nodded the two men towards a close entrance. ‘You’ll find Mr O’Roirdan on the first floor. The black door mind, the others are for business.’
As they climbed the malodourous wooden stairway to the first floor, Pat Coll spoke first. ‘You know that young man?’ ‘Yes,’ replied his companion, ‘he was one of the brighter lad’s from the Sacred Heart but alas using his talents to the wrong ends it seems. He lost his way when the fever took his father when people have nothing, they have nothing to lose.’ Pat nodded, ‘Like so many of our people here, John, kept at the bottom of the heap and forced to survive as best they can.’ They reached the top of the stairway and entered a corridor with three doors on either side. All were painted in a peeling reddish colour while one was black. Pat spoke first, ‘be careful with this one, John. He is not a man to be trifled with.’ John Buckley nodded, ‘I will, Pat. We’ll say the right things and hopefully find out what we need to know.’ John knocked on the door and waited as at least three bolts were undone inside. A suspicious looking man of about fifty glanced out at them through the barely opened door, ‘If it’s a pipe ye want you’re at the wrong house. If it’s a woman you can try the red doors.’ John spoke in a voice calmer than he felt, ‘We’ve no wish for opium or anything else. It’s Mr O’Roirdan we’ve come to see.’ The door opened wider and the man bid them enter with a curt nod of his head. ‘Wait here.’ The two friends sat at an old wooden table and regarded each other as the man entered a door at the rear of the dull ante-room and left them alone. ‘I feel like a fish out of water,’ Pat Coll mumbled to his friend. John nodded, ‘tis indeed a different world but patience Pat, we’ll conclude our business here very soon.’
After a few moments the door-keeper returned bringing with him the aforementioned Patrick O’Roirdan. It was plain to see from his demeanour that he was indeed the ruler of this tawdry domain. He was a man of around forty with a shock of greying hair and a well-trimmed beard. O’Roirdan regarded his visitors with a suspicious eye and inscrutable look on his face, ‘State your business, I’m a busy man,’ he barked in an accent which still held a hint of Belfast in it. The visitors stood from their chairs and John spoke first, ‘Thank you for seeing us Mr O’Roirdan. I’m told you’re a man of some influence in this area so I’ll come straight to the point. A woman late of our Parish passed from consumption, may God rest her, and news reached us that her feckless and drunken husband cannot explain the whereabouts of the 12 year old daughter left in his care, a certain Kathleen Ward.’ O’Roirdan’s face grew sterner as if anger was brewing below the surface but he listened in silence as John continued, ‘It is known that her father came into possession of £10, which is as you know a considerable amount for a labouring man. ’O’Roirdan interrupted him, ‘What exactly do you expect me to know of a twelve year old child? I have no business in that market. There are others who deal in such things but not me,’ John looked at him, ‘I am not for a moment suggesting you do, Mr O’Roirdan but I know from many acquaintances that you have eyes and ears everywhere, This girl is has been sold like a chattel to God knows who and we want her back.’ Mr O’Roirdan stroked his greying beard; he was obviously not used to being spoken to like this. ‘You have a boldness about you. It’s something I admire. It is true some rich men will pay well for a girl, especially if she is untouched. Disease is rife and they risk nothing on a fresh child.’ John noted that O’Roirdan clearly knew about the trade in human misery which flourished in all British cities. He winced a little at what he was hearing but allowed him to continue. ‘My business interests are many and varied but I would not lower myself to deal in innocence.’ Andrew nodded, sensing that there was a grain of decency left in this man who made his money selling gut-rot liquor, opium and prostitution. ‘Will you help us to locate her, Mr O’Roirdan? I fear time is short.’ The man thought for a moment before speaking. ‘I cannot come into conflict with other…’ he paused as if searching for the right word, ‘businessmen… but I will make discreet enquiries. If any news comes to my ear you shall hear of it. Now go.’ John gave the man a slip of paper with the girl’s name written on it. ‘I hope to hear from you soon Mr O’Roirdan.’
As Pat and John made their way back up the Saltmarket they discussed the night’s events. ‘I sense he might help us, John?’ His companion nodded, ’He will if he has a spark of honour left I him.’ Pat nodded, ‘I know a few of his family. His daughter still attends the school. She is in her final year.’ John nodded, ‘Having a relative of similar age to poor Kathleen might tip him in our favour.’ As they turned along the London Road they spoke of other things too. ‘Are the mighty Corinthians in contact? It’s just a week till we test our mettle against them,’ asked Pat. John smiled, ‘Yes indeed and I hear we have sold over 15,000 tickets. This will be the biggest assembly at a football match in the history of Scotland.’ Pat smiled at his friend, ‘I don’t know if the Celtic can match such a mighty club as Corinthians but it would be a feather in our cap to lay such a club low.’ His friend smiled, ’The Englishmen think they’ll play us from the field but we have a team to best them. We’ll also have the funds to best the hunger which stalks our poorer streets, at least for a while. I read today in a newspaper that one child in 6 will not live to see its fifth birthday in the eastern part of Glasgow. That shames us all.’ His companion nodded solemnly, ‘It does indeed but we’ll redouble our efforts. If none would help us then we will help ourselves.’
January 3rd 1889 dawned dull and grey but there was at least some excitement in the air. The rain of past week had relented and all roads led to Celtic Park as the mighty Corinthians were coming to play Celtic. There was a carnival atmosphere in the east end as the crowds flocked around the modest little ground eager to see if the up and coming Celtic side could make an impression against the famous Corinthians. Patrick Coll stood talking to John Buckley outside the grandstand of the stadium which stood by Janefield cemetery. ‘It looks like a fine turnout today. We’ll see a good return for our local charities.’ John nodded, ‘Aye Pat, I hear almost 20,000 tickets have been sold.’ Before the conversation could continue a young man appeared in front of Buckley. John recognised him from the alleyway two nights before. ‘Mr Buckley,’ he began, ‘our mutual friend asked me to give you this.’ John took a folded piece of paper from him, ‘Thank you, Thomas. Tell our mutual friend he has my gratitude.’ He read the note and turned to his friend, ‘Come Pat, I’m afraid I’ll have to forgo watching today’s game as more pressing matters are at hand.’
Pat Coll exhaled audibly he read the short note given to him by John. It gave a man’s name and an address at a plush west end street. It also said cryptically, ‘the goods remain undamaged as yet but as his wife is travelling to England soon to visit with her family I’d be swift so that they remain so.’ John Buckley looked at his old friend, ‘we must get over to this address as quickly as we can.’ Pat stroked his beard and replied, ‘I know of this fellow, he is a Magistrate as well as powerful man in the printing business. He could cause us trouble if we accuse him with no proof but a note from a known reprobate.’ John thought things over before replying, ‘Do you still keep in touch with your friend at the Bulletin?’ Pat looked at him mystified. ‘Yes of course, why?’ John Buckley regarded him, ’Perhaps he should join you on our trip to the west end. Nothing frightens the hypocrite like the threat of his sins being made public.’ Pat nodded, ‘he is here today at the football. I saw him earlier, let me go seek him out and we’ll get going.’
John and Pat, accompanied by reporter Albert Murphy, rung the bell on the door of the plush house which stood on a tree lined street a million miles away from the grim streets of the east end. As they waited, a tall, smart man in a suit opened the door and looked at him quizzically, ‘Yes, how can I be of assistance to you gentlemen?’ Andrew spoke first, ‘Good day, Mr Grimes. My name is John Buckley, this is Mr Patrick Coll and this gentleman is Mr Murphy, a reporter for the Daily Bulletin. I wonder if I might have a word with you on a matter of some delicacy?’ The man looked at then sternly, ’I have no time for unexpected visitors, perhaps on another occasion.’ As he went to close the door, John said in a loud voice, ‘That is a pity. I should hate it if the reputation of a man such as you was judged in the newspapers.’ The tall man stopped and looked at them for a moment as if weighing up what three strangers could possibly know of his life. ‘You may come in but only for a short while as I have pressing business to attend to.’
John knew to accuse this man outright of buying a child from her dissolute father would lead to him being thrown from the house. More subtlety than that was required. As they sat in the opulent study he regarded Mr Charles Grimes and began. ‘It has come to our attention that you have engaged as a house servant, a certain Kathleen Ward. Miss Ward is, unknown to you I suspect, carrying a certain disease which we won’t speak of in polite society. It may be that this condition could be passed on to others who come into…’ he paused a second for effect, ‘contact with her.’ Grimes regarded them his face darkening, ‘Now listen well, I don’t know what you are insinuating but one word against my reputation and I will ruin all of you.’ John Buckley stayed calm and continued to speak. ‘You misunderstand Mr Grimes; we have heard that you offered a poor child honest employment and even gifted £10 to support her poor family. My friend Mr Murphy would like to praise you in his newspaper for your kindness but we would also like to return the child to her grandmother and see she has the medical treatment she requires.’ The Man’s face remained stern; he was worldly enough to know the game that was being played here. He pondered the situation for a moment before standing without saying a word and leaving the room. The three visitors sat in silence regarding each other. In a few moments Grimes returned with a sullen faced child who was putting on her coat. ‘Here, take her,’ he said in a voice both cold and angry. John stood, ‘Thank you Mr Grimes, we’ll take our leave now.’
As they headed for the door with the confused girl accompanying them, Grimes hissed quietly into John’s ear, ‘You Irish are a degenerate species. What kind of father sells his own daughter?’ John looked into his eyes and said coldly, ‘and what sort of man would buy her?’
The three men arrived back in the east end as the crowds were leaving Celtic Park. ‘It seems we’ve missed the football,’ John Buckley said with a shrug but we missed it for a good cause.’ He instructed Pat to return the child to her grandmother and headed towards the stadium. After some time he located the head master of the Sacred Heart School. ‘Our mission was a success, Brother. The child is back with her grandmother and as far as we could ascertain unharmed.’ The man regarded him with a smile, ‘Thank you John, I knew you were the right man for so delicate a task.’ John smiled and almost as an afterthought replied, ‘How did the Celts fair against the mighty Corinthians? Did we put up a good show?’ The head master returned his smile, ‘Indeed they did John. The Corinthians will return to London suitably chastened after today’s events. The Celtic defeated them by six goals to two.’ John Buckley smiled broadly, ‘That’s grand, Brother, and the money raised will help many of our poorest.’ The other man nodded, ‘You have a good heart, John, a Celtic heart. As our Lord said, ‘the poor will always be with us’, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help where we can.’ John nodded, ‘That’s why we started the Celtic brother, I hope wherever the journey takes it that they never forget that.’