Belfast Telegraph

Scarva Sham Fight sees crowds flood back even though they know who wins

By Claire McNeilly

Scarva is probably the last place you'd need a betting shop. After all, no-one would be foolish enough to wager any hard earned cash on King James II when the tiny village's Sham Fight comes around once again.

William of Orange is king in these parts… the reigning champion for over three centuries now.

His triumph is as inevitable as The Thirteenth following The Twelfth - but is that predictability such a bad thing?

For the tens of thousands who descended on this picturesque part of Co Down yesterday, clearly it isn't.

Sure, they can predict the ultimate winner - it is, after all, a re-enactment of history - but they can also venture a few miles west of Banbridge in the sure-fire knowledge that this is going to be a safe and hugely enjoyable day.

Only the weather is left to chance… but, yesterday, it too lived up to the forecast.

Some came out of curiosity, others because it's something they've always done on July 13 - including Arlene Foster, who was among those relishing Northern Ireland's biggest one-day, single venue event… an enduring, endearing cultural phenomenon.

"I love coming here, it has a funfair feel to it," said the DUP leader.

"It's a great way of catching up with folk you might not have seen since last year's event, and there's such a great range of bands to listen to."

Also enjoying the festivities were Portadown's James Turkington (31), Neil Sinton (30), Jenna Wright (27), Callum Courtney (10) and five-year-old Katie-Lynn Courtney.

"I've never missed this," said banker James.

Self-employed Gary Nicholl (45), from Castleblaney, Co Monaghan, was there with his seven-year-old son Craig.

"I come every second year, it's always a great day out," he said.

Kilkeel jockey Leanne Hanna (24) and her 22-year-old friend Joanne Kelly, a nursing assistant from Newry, were relieved to have found a good vantage point on the crowded grass.

"We're meeting our friends later; we usually make a day of it," said Leanne.

Meanwhile, salesmen Niall Carr (20), a Londoner, and Andrew McLarty (23), from Banbridge, cited "good vibe, food and craic" as their reasons for attending.

But even the most ardent supporter of this unique event, organised by the Royal Black Preceptory, couldn't tell you exactly when it started.

The first reference to the brethren gathering in Scarva came in 1834, when Orangemen marched in the village before using the Newry Canal as a substitute for the Boyne, and a fun re-enactment of that epic battle of 1690 began, with the 'opposing armies' numbering around 50 on each bank.

It grew into an annual clash between kings William and James in a packed village which, for 364 other days of the year, is home to only a few hundred.

But this isn't just a platform for music and pageantry… yesterday's event, for instance, was held in partnership with the British Heart Foundation in Northern Ireland, to raise funds for research into, and awareness of, heart disease.

Indeed, some £700,000 for various good causes has been raised on a biennial basis since 2002 and earlier this year, the Loyal Order presented £107,000 to Macmillan Cancer Support.

"In a country used to bad news stories, this is the other side of the coin," said Millar Farr, Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution.

"The fundraising helps everyone, because no-one is immune to cancer or other serious diseases."

He added: "We give that money gladly, for everyone in our society."

Mother and daughter Gail May (60) and Kim Trimble (39) were making a day of it with Gail's daughter Jessie Trimble (9) and her niece Kaci May (9).

"We wanted to take the girls along because this brings back so many childhood memories for me," said shop assistant Gail, from Portadown.

Bridal shop assistant Dionne Savage (27) from Laurencetown, Linzi Sparks (22), a Dromore-based retail assistant, and Louise Williamson (26), a child health assistant from Portadown, were gearing up for some "serious fun".

Linzi said: "We come to support the bands, but I've never seen the Sham Fight so I'm looking forward to it."

Markethill's Wayne Taylor (16) and his friends Amy Armstrong and Zoe Winford, both 15 and from Markethill, have made this an annual event and, for the Dilly family from Portadown - Garfield (37), Emma (32) and 18-month-old Lucy - the day was rather poignant.

"My grandad Garfield, who died when he was 58, was photographed here with my granny Florence (now 81) so we wanted to come and make some new memories," said Garfield, a yard man.

It's been said that upwards of 100,000 attend the Sham Fight every year, and the crowd at yesterday's proceedings, hosted by Sir Knight Alfred Buller Memorial RBP 1000 - was certainly impressive. The lunchtime rush saw people form a snaking queue towards just one of the many burger vans, while the lines for the strategically placed portable loos were daunting, to say the least.

And beside the field itself and far beyond, were hundreds of parked cars that ferried thousands of the fold-up chairs, tables and parasols that comprise a typical survival kit for any self-respecting Scarva festival goer.

Just moments before the battle began yesterday, the crowd erupted into laughter after one of King James' men lined up beside his opponent by mistake - but he quickly rectified the error and ran across to the right side of the battlefield amid some playful shouts of "traitor".

It's hard to believe that such a large-scale event - now regarded as a major tourist attraction, with government funding - is organised by a team of just eight enthusiastic volunteers, but their efforts were clearly appreciated, especially by regular visitors.

"I've been coming here for 51 years", said Newry farmer Trevor McCartney, who accompanied son Philip (42) and his pal Ian Copeland, an assistant manager.

Retired English couple Raymond (81) and Ann Darragh (74) said they thought they'd have a picnic and take in the atmosphere.

"I went to the parades 17 years ago and really enjoyed it, so we decided to come out for the day while we're in Northern Ireland visiting family," said Ann, who used to work in a paper company.

Sporting rather unique head gear were Portadown's Jason Woods (39), his eight-year-old son Harry and their friend Dean Bunting (37).

"We're here to support the Portadown True Blues," said factory worker Dean.

"The bands are our main focus but the kids also enjoy the amusements."

At the top of the field where the re-enactment - the only one of its kind remaining on the island of Ireland - is staged, is the chestnut tree where William tied his horse on the way to the Boyne, which remains a popular location for the inevitable selfies.

This year's event had an added attraction - a cultural field, showcasing Lambeg drumming, highland dancing and other activities aimed at improving visitors' understanding of the traditions of the Loyal Orders.

Up to 90 preceptories and a similar number of pipe, flute and accordion bands took part in the procession, with an estimated 4,000 members of the Royal Black Institution stepping out.

They left the assembly field on the Gilford Road mid-morning, making their way through the village to the demesne - a one-mile route to the Loughbrickland end of a village heaving with spectators of all ages looking forward to the main event.

Rarely has there been so much excitement over a foregone conclusion.

Even so, King William, played by John Adair and King James (Colin Cairns), accompanied by soldiers in period costume, played their respective parts with gusto.

"My victory was the result of meticulous planning," said 'William' afterwards, tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

Earlier, members of Scarva Royal Black Preceptory laid a wreath at the village memorial to local members of the security forces who were murdered during the Troubles.

Platform proceedings were chaired by David Livingstone, County Armagh Grand Master, with the worship led by Rev John Batchelor, County Armagh Grand Chaplain.

The resolutions were read by Robin Diffin, Deputy County Armagh Grand Master, proposed by Millar Farr and seconded by William Baillie, Assistant Grand Master.

"To me, the day is all about celebrating culture and seeing old friends," said Steven Park (29), a lecturer at Ulster University in Coleraine, who had his 15-month-old son Josias with him.

"I've been coming here since I was four years old, so it's a case of carrying on the tradition," added the Portadown man.

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