On the 13th July each year, it is estimated that as many as 120,000 people flock to the small County Down village to witness the ‘Sham Fight’ and accompanying procession of the Royal Black Preceptory. The Fight, a re-enactment of the Battle of the Boyne, is now what many regard as being the single largest ‘one-day’ event in the Province, but what is the Sham Fight?
Sham fights of the Boyne were not something just limited to the Scarva area, but do seem to have been particularly focused in County Armagh in the distant past. There was a famous Sham Fight that took place at Bandon in Cork on a regular basis, long since ceased, but as far back as 1825 local newspapers reported on fights that were part of Orange celebrations in Altnaveigh, Poyntzpass, Newtownhamilton, Tandragee, Portadown and Markethill.
The 1835 Parliamentary Select Committee on Orange Lodges referenced a statement by Lord Gosford that alleged that Sham Fights were common on the 5th November each year where ‘the Orange Society divide themselves in two and appoint a King William to one and King James to another.’ He went on to mention Keady, where a small river was taken to represent the Boyne for the day, and where William would drive James across.
The Scarva fight was well established in memory even as early as 1838, when an Ordnance Survey account remarked that Tandragee Parish had no peculiar customs bar one. That custom was called the ‘Sham Fight of Scarva’, and was originally fought over the top of the Canal, again to represent the Boyne. In 1836 over 5,000 participated.
Folklore suggests that the Scarva event pre-dates the formation of the Orange Order, and the deep entrenchment of the custom suggests the gathering could very well have its roots in the years immediately following the Battle of the Boyne itself. King William did camp in Scarva in June 1690, and the site where he supposedly rested underneath a Chestnut tree still is pointed out by locals today.
The truth of its exact origin is lost to the depths of time, but one truth does remain unchanged. Armagh Historian T.G.F. Patterson interviewed a native of the area in 1920, a man almost 90 years of age, who told him that ‘its quare fun they are when they are well done, but I wudn’t like to be oul’ James- he’s always bate.’