Sham Fight on hold once again but King William and King James will eventually resume their ‘sword play’

The Sham Fight in the small Co Down village of Scarva on July 13 is again not taking place this year. The highly cultural event that normally is the mecca for up to 100,000 people is the inevitable casualty of mass gathering restrictions imposed to counter the ravages of the covid pandemic.

By Billy Kennedy
Saturday, 10th July 2021, 7:10 am

The Scarva celebrations that include a parade by 4,000 members of the Royal Black Institution and 80 top quality bands was cancelled last year, and only a small turn-out by the local Black preceptory and a band for a short parade and wreath-laying ceremony is permissible this coming Tuesday.

‘Scarva Day’ on July 13 significantly marks historic events that date back to the weeks and months leading up the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690 with the colourful mock battle contrasted by the highly dignified parade, making it a celebration for the tens of thousands of loyalists in an atmosphere totally devoid of tension

Traditionally, the sleepy little village (population 350) on the county Armagh/Down border alongside the Belfast-Dublin rail link comes to life on the 13th of July with accents to be heard not just of Northern Ireland origin, but from other parts of the UK and, indeed, distant shores of America and the English-speaking Commonwealth countries.

The Williamite victory over the Jacobite forces in the late 17th century is enacted before a captive audience on the spacious lawns of Scarvagh demesne by ‘Royal’ principals who jostle in “sword play” over a 30-minute encounter. The two ‘monarchs’ enter the Scarva demesne on horse-back, accompanied by their aides - William’s ‘Duke Schomberg’ and James’s ‘General Patrick Sarsfield’. The climax is when the green standard of ‘King James’ is lowered by the red-shirted “soldiers” of William, to loud cheers from assembled spectators.

Many articles have appeared on the Sham Fight down the years, and it was Omagh-born journalist Benedict Kiely, of the Irish Press, who in July 1953, paid tribute to the “dignified bearing” of Scarva man Alex Kinnin, who played the part of King Billy for 36 years and was succeeded by his son James. No one ever expects an upset in the Scarva mock battle - the bookies are not interested in offering odds - and, after an enjoyable encounter, ‘William’ triumphs, of course, astride his white charger.

The Scarva parade consists of Royal Black preceptories mainly from Portadown, Tandragee, Banbridge, Newry, Markethill, Rathfriland, Mourne and Lower Iveagh (Dromore). The RBP banners colourfully portray many Old Testament scenes like David at the Brook, the Burning Bush, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The rich banner colours provide a blending backcloth to the rich oak and chestnut trees in the demesne and crowds of spectators are lined 10-deep as the mile-long parade makes its way from Scarva main street to Scarvagh House, owned by the Buller family.

After moving past Scarvagh House, the ‘Blackmen’ pass a Spanish chestnut tree, where King William is said to have pitched his tent and tethered his horse in the overnight stay in Scarva in June 1690, before moving on to the Boyne. Many, no doubt, visiting Scarva get the feeling that they are actually treading on ‘Royal ground’.

The Royal Black Institution is a strictly Reformed Protestant organisation and a religious service is held after the ‘Sham Fight’, with resolutions reaffirming loyalty to the British throne, upholding the Reformed principles and the maintenance of the United Kingdom link.

But Scarva on July 13 is not all about “fighting”, marching and speeches. It is also a social occasion when families and friends come together to renew relationships. A dry day at Scarva means throngs of people are stretched on the lawns and fields for picnics in front of Scarvagh House; a wet day dampens the proceedings, and there have been a few soggy days, as the crowds seek shelter under the rain dripping canopy of trees, soaked, but still determined to capture the spirit of the day.

King William’s connection with Scarva is penned in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) under the heading of ‘Scarvagh’.

“Here the army of William 111, under Duke Schomberg, first rendezvoused after landing in Ireland, the camp extending in two lines from Loughbrickland to Scarvagh Pass and Pointz Pass (Poyntzpass). A venerable oak in Scarvagh demesne is still shown as that under which the Royal tent was pitched”.

Former Scarva Church of Ireland rector the Rev Dr Michael Dewar, in his book ‘The Scarva Story’, recounts that Duke Schomberg’s men lay under canvas throughout the winter of 1689-90, many of his English soldiers falling victims to the rigours of the harsh Irish climate.

Dr Dewar recalls: “Then in mid-summer 1690 came the lightning march from Carrickfergus where William had landed on June 14. The Dutch-born Schomberg (William was also Dutch) met the King at White House on the road to Belfast and after a ‘royal’ welcome took the road southwards through Belfast, Lambeg Lisburn, Blaris, Hillsborough, and Banbridge at Huntley. in the direction of Loughbrickland and Scarva.

“At Scarva what an amazing spectacle the great Williamite army must have presented to the wondering eyes of our forbears as it passed up the main street on the way to the gathering place which is now Scarva demesne. Leaving at 2pm on June 26, the army passed through Newry to Ardee and the Boyne Water itself. The Gap of the North again!”.

In 1783 an event took place in the townland of Lisnagade that may well have led to the rise of the modern-day Sham Fight. A skirmish ensued at Lisnagade Fort between the Protestant ‘Peep of Day Boys’ and the Roman Catholic ‘Hearts of Steel’ groups. The Protestant group, who were the forerunners of those who brought the Orange Order into being after the Battle of the Diamond near Loughgall in September 1795, drove off the opposing forces and, in subsequent years, they held a sham fight in nearby Scarva to mark the victory.

The traditional celebrations in Scarva may have been diluted in 2020, and in 2021 because of an extraordinary pandemic, but undoubtedly, if normality returns by July 13, 2022, this most picturesque Co Down village will again resound to the huge throng of people who will flock there to walk in the footsteps of a monarch - William of Orange, much remembered and immortalised by many.

The Scarva celebrations rank high on the Northern Ireland tourist calendar. The event has a very special atmosphere, more unique than even the Twelfth.