Organisers very calm ahead of enormous Sham

Sandy Heak, chairman of the Royal 13th organising committee (centre), with King William (John Adair) and King James (Colin Cairns) ahead of this year's sham fight
Sandy Heak, chairman of the Royal 13th organising committee (centre), with King William (John Adair) and King James (Colin Cairns) ahead of this year's sham fight

The organisers of the Scarva Sham Fight have the responsibility of planning an event at which around 100,000 people are expected.

You wouldn’t know it to meet them.

The News Letter had the pleasure of a coffee and a chat with four members of the organising committee in Scarva last week, and given their relaxed nature and craic-filled conversations there was no indication the huge event was just days away.

Sandy Heak, a giant of a man who acts as chair of The Royal Thirteenth organising committee, introduced John Adair, who plays the lead role of King Billy in the Sham Fight, and long-serving Royal Black men William Duffie and Wilson Jordan.

Not present at our meeting at Sinton’s on the Bridge in Scarva were the other four committee members, including Colin Cairns who plays King James in the famously re-enacted battle.

This small committee of eight, with the help of their 40-strong preceptory – Sir Alfred Buller Memorial RBP 1000 – have the task of putting on an event which year on year sees the village of Scarva fit to burst.

Everyone on the committee has at least 25 or 30 years service to the Royal Black, while two of the men at our table – Mr Duffie and Mr Jordan – have both been with the preceptory for more than 40 years.

“Wilson has been in it that long he probably minds Sir Alfred Buller himself,” joked Mr Heak.

Of his team, Mr Heak, who is also worshipful master of RBP 1000, said: “There’s a good camaraderie between us all. There’s a bit of craic, we’re not too serious, if you were you’d quit in the morning.

“Nobody is any higher than anyone else. We work as a team. You have a chairman, a vice chairman and a secretary but everyone is treated equal.”

Mr Adair added: “People meet us and probably think, who are these bundle of yahoos.

“We might not seem like the most serious bunch, but we work very hard on this event all year round.”

A secondary Sham Fight took place when it came to ordering scones and our waitress announced that there was only one cherry one left.

During the first round of negotiations each man took his turn to stake his claim to the cherry scone.

The next exchanges saw the men take a more considered approach, each offering to forgo the much-sought delicacy so another could enjoy it.

For the record Mr Heak got the cherry scone.

Possibly because he is the chairman, or even more likely because he is by far the biggest at the table.

While the tone of our meeting is incredibly relaxed the men behind the Sham Fight say that they are equally comfortable taking part in ‘serious’ talks.

They explained that they conduct meetings regularly over the year with other districts of the Orange Order and Royal Black as well as with the police, the local ABC council and funding bodies in order to set up the annual spectacle in Scarva.

Mr Adair said: “This is the third year of the committee. What we’re trying to do is create funding and bring fresh, new things to the day.

“We never want to loose what our day is about. It’s about the Royal Black Institution and we won’t change that.”

Mr Heak said: “It’s not really getting bigger, we probably couldn’t afford it to get any bigger.

“It’s big enough as it is and our aim is for the same numbers to return every year.

“We’re trying to improve it every year but not changing it too much. People like what it is.”

He continued: “We are delighted to introduce the concept of a cultural field for the first time with the hope of further expansion.

“This additional facility will showcase the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland with visitors able to enjoy Lambeg workshops and highland dancing performances, among other activities and entertainment.

“We believe such a cultural experience will not only enhance our annual celebrations, but also create greater understanding of the traditions of the Loyal Order fraternity.”

Of the cost of the event, Mr Adair said: “We funded this event ourselves for as long as any of us have been here up until two years ago when we got funding for the first time.

“We run this event on a budget of somewhere around £8,000. For years the only income we actually had was from the traders on the day.

“Then maybe eight or nine years ago we introduced car parks and starting charging a pound a car which allowed us to cover our insurance.

“For all the funding we’ve got we couldn’t show you one pound nor penny in a bank account. It all goes into the day.”

Mr Heak said: “People think RBP 1000 is minted because of the day and we’re not. There’s times we scrape through and nothing more.

“How we manage to do it on such a small budget is the volunteers.”

A big help in facilitating the event is the use of the demesne owned by the Buller family.

“There’s 350 acres and we use about 50 to 60 acres of it. The demesne has an historical like to King William.

“At the top of the field where the re-enactment is staged, is the chestnut tree where King William tied his horse on the way to the Battle of the Boyne and where his troops rested.

“The men were camped from Scarva out to Loughbrickland and out to Poyntzpass in a crescent formation.The reason he was in the middle in Scarva was so he could shoot his orders out in both directions at the same time.

“When he was here legend has it that a local man named Reilly brought him food and as a reward he was told whatever land he could plant oak trees around was his. That turned out to be the desmesne as it is today.”

Mr Heak also provided some detail about the history of the key part of The Thirteenth celebrations in Scarva.

He said: “The Sham Fight in Scarva has been going on for over 200 years, but at the start it wasn’t to do with Billy and James, it was to do with two local factions.

“One of them wanted to have a parade through Scarva on Lady’s Day and the Scarva boys wouldn’t let them. They beat them out of Scarva.

“The following year they had a re-enactment of it over the canal. It eventually turned into a Sham Fight between Billy and James.

“It was the Tandragee District Orange that actually ran the Sham Fight up until about 1920 then it transitioned to the Black.

“We’d like to think it can carry on for another 200 years.”

Mr Adair said funding had allowed the committee to purchase new uniforms and a new arch last year and this year they hope to produce a professional DVD of the event.

He explained: “Every man that parades this village – and there are 5,000 of them – do not see the parade because they’re taking part in it. A DVD would allow them to do that.”

Asked what makes Scarva such a popular destination on the Thirteenth, Mr Adair said: “If you were here at 6.30am you would see the same people who have been going for the last 20 years setting their deckchairs in the same place down to the inch.

“They come to see the core activities which are the Royal Black Parade and the Sham Fight.

“People just come for the family atmosphere. We’ve never lost that family atmosphere. We stayed away from all that parading culture problem.”

Mr Heak added: “Scarva is just a totally different atmosphere to the Twelfth. It’s a different day. It’s a real family event. The street is thick with people.

“People keep coming back every year to sample the unique atmosphere.”

Asked what constituted a successful day in Scarva, Mr Adair commented: “All we want is for it to be trouble-free and that everybody who has come to Scarva has had a good family-friendly day.

“Good weather is a plus, but rain doesn’t seem to deter people.

“Last year we were walking out back down the Demesne at 4.30pm through puddles about eight inches deep and the people were still sitting in their deck chairs lining the avenue to see us.

“If we only hear three comments from three different people to say what a great day they had that constitutes a good day for us.”