Carnival atmosphere at annual Battle of the Boyne Sham Fight
Thousands enjoy brass bands, a 400-strong Royal Black parade and a jolly re-enactment
Participants gather for the annual Sham Fight in Scarva, Co Down. Photograph: Justin Kernoghan.
An ear-splittingly loud pop of musket-fire and a glimpse of a red plumed hat heralded King William’s arrival on horseback for the Sham Fight at Scarva, Co Down.
Children shrieked with excitement on Friday as the king and his retinue emerged from behind an ice-cream van in a cloud of acrid grey smoke.
Each year, the Royal Black Institution hosts the hugely popular re-enactment of the clash between King William and King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, close to an ancient chestnut tree at Scarva Demesne, where William and his troops are supposed to have rested while on their way South.
Swagger and showmanship were the order of the day rather than historical accuracy, but one thing was certain: William of Orange was always guaranteed to win.
John Adair, a member of the local Royal Black Preceptory, who has played the role of William for 27 years, said the Sham Fight is unique because it is the last such event in Ireland.
Loyal orders historian David Scott said the battle is modelled on one of the most famous mock fights in the country, which used to be held at Bandon, Co Cork. There were once many other similar occasions in the North.
“We do it today because it’s a way of keeping history alive in people’s minds,” said Adair.
Resplendent in a foppish wig of brown ringlets, a heavily-braided scarlet frock-coat and a pair of dazzling white breeches, King William posed, in rock-star fashion, with members of the crowd.
Then with menacing bravado, he tested the point of his sword before duelling with the unfortunate King James (played by Colin Cairns). The encounter was brief, and within moments James was laid out flat on the grass, eyes shut, with the tip of William’s sword resting firmly on his chest.
“Don’t over-play it, it’s supposed to be a sham fight,” joked a Royal Black Institution official.
Prior to the duel, tens of thousands of people watched a parade by 4,000 members of the institution, who were accompanied by flute, pipe, accordion and brass bands.
Mezzo-soprano Emma Brown performed British patriotic songs such as Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country.
Given this year is the centenary of the Armistice, the Scarva parade was led by men and women dressed as soldiers and nurses from the first World War era.
Throughout the day, in the village itself, the “soldiers” read out extracts from the diaries of local servicemen who fought on the front line 100 years ago.
In the fairground area, a different kind of accordion group, accompanied by thumping bass, was belting out a medley of tunes including If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlour and Hello Mary-Lou, Goodbye Heart.
Stalls were doing a brisk trade in burgers, Union flags, drums, bubble-makers and toy rifles. At the music stall, shoppers browsed CDs such as The Ultimate Twelfth Party Mix and The South Belfast Young Defenders while teenagers screamed and groaned on the “Terminator 3” ride.
Local couple Robbie and Donna were sitting in the sun with their 16-month-old daughter Elena, who was tapping on a tiny toy drum.
“I’m 35 now, and I’ve been coming here since I was 12 years-old,” said Robbie. “First you come with your family, then you come with the boys – your friends, you know – and then you come with your family again,” he said, pointing to Donna, who is a Catholic originally from Derry.
“This is the only day of the year I’m a Prod,” Robbie added. “We’re here because it’s a real family-oriented, cross-community event.”
This was Donna’s first visit to the Sham Fight. What did she make of it?
“Well, marching bands are not really my thing, but Elena is loving it.”
Back at the battlefield, the plumed protagonists left the scene after King William gave James a friendly hand up. James’s green flag, shot to blazes by musket-fire, lay smoking on the grass. A bowler-hatted member of the Royal Black, together with a soldier from James’s defeated forces, used Ballygowan water bottles to extinguish the smouldering standard.
Not exactly how it was done in 1690, but nobody seemed to mind.