Belfast was a town that was blossoming but already beginning to rot.
Since medieval times, the town of Carrickfergus that lay further up the lough shore had eclipsed Belfast, but in recent times Belfast had grown out from under its shadow. Belfast’s harbour had flourished into a thriving international port, its industry had exploded into a bustling, steaming hive of linen mills, foundries, factories and shipyards and the town had become home to a population that was fast catching up on that of Dublin.
Belfast was sprawling like weeds in all directions, swallowing up surrounding townlands and villages. The building boom had created not just countless overcrowded terraces of mill workers' houses but beautiful new classical-style buildings, a couple of spacious squares and impressive three and four storied dwellings, offices and hotels. Wealth, employment and people flowed into the town while linen, rope, iron, chemicals, glass, ships and coaches flowed out. The thirst for learning resulted in the founding of an academical institution, a society for the promotion of knowledge, a natural history museum, several libraries and a botanical garden.
Alongside all this, the prospect of work and high wages attracted hordes of people from all over the north of Ireland and as they flocked to Belfast the sectarian tensions of the Irish countryside had begun distilling into cesspools of festering hatred. Instead of living in separate villages, divided by several miles of open country, catholics and protestants now found themselves living cheek by jowl, a mere street away from each other and the more they saw of each other, the more they loathed each other. Riots were becoming common occurrences as Ribbonmen fought Orangemen and caught in the middle of it all were the ‘bulkies’, the Belfast Borough Police Force.
It was late morning and one of the police force, Abraham Harpur, was walking into Belfast to work. He lived outside the town, across the river Lagan in the little village of Ballyhackamore. The previous night’s fog had lifted and the day was crisp, cold and clear, though the town was already bathed in its usual miasma of smoke and fumes. As he crossed over the twenty-seven arches of the imaginatively titled “Long Bridge” that spanned the river Lagan and led the way into the town, he observed to his right the forest of masts from the sailing ships that crowded along the docks at the top of High Street and Custom House Quay where the river widened into an estuary with the sea.
A brisk sea breeze blew up the river from the sea lough and Harpur was glad of the fresh air it brought with it. The Lagan, the river that oozed its way under the arches of the bridge was thick with factory effluent and also served as the main sewer for the overcrowded town. The Policeman was thankful that the tide was in. At low tide, the sea retreated from the estuary mouth and the river level fell to expose wide, stinking mud flats that reeked of settled filth. Rats scurried their way across the surface hunting for juicy tid-bits.
Above the city the dark slopes of the Black Mountain rose, its long, ridged summit so strangely like a sleeping giant it had once inspired Jonathan Swift to write his tale of Gulliver and his voyage to Lilliput.
Harpur was tired. After the previous evening's adventure at the Burying Ground he had not got to bed until the early hours of the morning. His shift was not due to start until late afternoon but he had been woken by a knock at the door from a fellow officer who had informed him that Inspector Boyd wanted to see him straight away.
Grudgingly, he had dressed then walked to the stew shop where he had taken his time over an extravagant breakfast of bacon, eggs, black pudding and fried bread, all washed down by two large pots of iron-strong tea. If Boyd wanted to see him he could just bloody well wait. Boyd had not spent half the night freezing his backside off in a graveyard like him. He was also slightly apprehensive, as no doubt Boyd was calling him in for a roasting over what had happened. There was also the gun to explain.
He reached the end of the bridge, arriving in the town proper, then walked a little along Ann Street and turned left along the narrow, crowded alleyway of Church Lane. At the end of the lane, Harpur emerged into the hectic bustle of Poultry Square. The poultry market was in full cry and the wide square was packed with hawkers, squawking fouls and hundreds of people buying and selling. Harpur pushed his way through the seething mass of people, most of whom shot resentful glances his way when they spotted his Police uniform.
Across the square he arrived at the large three storey building that was the headquarters of the Belfast Borough Police. The Police Office was a disgrace. The whole building was pervaded by the stench of the surrounding poultry market. The broken and cracked glass of the windows let in the constant racket of the marketeers shouting about their wares over the din of the clucking and crowing of the caged poultry. In the common room, where policemen could relax either before or after starting their shift, Harpur had counted four holes in the skirting board where rodents had made their homes. The week before a prisoner had escaped from one of the cells simply by kicking a hole through the rotten brickwork of the wall.
Harpur entered the Police office, nodded to the desk sergeant in the reception room and made his way up the stairs to the first floor where the Office of Inspector George Boyd was.
"Well, here we go," he thought as he rapped on the door.
A curt order to “Enter” came from inside the Office.
Boyd did not sound happy.