There's an old, possibly apocryphal story, from wartime Northern Ireland about a "Dance for the Blackmen". The sign on the door in Bessbrook, Co. Armagh was clear and to the point. From nearby Derrymore House, a group of African-American soldiers had made their way to the dance, ready to jitterbug the night away and mingle with locals. On arrival, however, they were refused entry. Had Northern Ireland implemented a colour bar after all?
No, the “Blackmen” in question were members of one of Ulster’s ancient loyal orders, the Royal Black Institution. The dance, it seems, was solely for members of the Christian organisation. American GIs, regardless of race, were not welcome.
Each year on 13th July, thousands of members of the Royal Black Institution march in the Co. Down village of Scarva, commemorating a historic battle fought between the forces of King James II and William of Orange. As well as the parade, the organisers hold a “sham fight”, retelling the tale of William’s victory in the field.
In the years before The Great War, around 50,000 people would gather to watch the “sham fight”. Numbers declined after 1918 but it remained a popular event, with 30,000-40,000 in attendance on 13th July 1939. This event, however, would be the last for the duration of the Second World War. There would be no “sham fights” while real fights were being fought across the globe. Along with the Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution officially cancelled it’s large demonstrations between 1940 and 1945. But, in the Portadown News on 19th July 1940, a question was asked:
Is it true that three of Portadown’s leading “Blackmen” visited Scarva as usual on “the Thirteenth”, and walked ’round Scarva House in the customary way?
While no answer was forthcoming in 1940, activities the following year would seem to indicate the small “parade” did indeed take place. Those men likely were Alex Adair (Worship Master of Portadown District), R.J. Magowan, and George H. Dickson.
Three Portadown “Black” men – Sir Knights A. Adair, R.J. Magowan, and G. Dickson were at Scarva as usual on Monday and walked again the well-trodden paths of the Demesne where in peace-time thousands of Black men and their friends from all over the Province join in the renowned “Thirteenth” demonstration. The three visitors brought home a fine bunch of orange lilies. Sir Knight and Brother Adair has thus maintained his record of not missing a “thirteenth” at Scarva in 59 years.
The following year, there was still no official return to the annual celebrations.
Hitler has rationed even the “Twelfth” and deprived us of a colourful day. Some of the sham fighters of Scarva, who enlivened the Thirteenth, are using up their energy on the real thing, unfortunately, for in total war there is no sham.
While the Royal Black Institution held no official demonstration at Scarva Demesne, the parade grew in number. Sir Knight and Brother Alex Adair, walking on an ulcerated leg, led five members of Portadown District around their traditional route. Accompanying him were, once again, R.J. Magowan and George H. Dickson. W.H. Wolsey and William N. Hurst accompanied the marching men who travelled to Scarva from Portadown in the orange-lily-bedecked car of Mr. T. Raymond. The Aughlish Drummers bore the only witness to the event.
Adair returned again in 1943, leading four of his Brethren to Scarva House after laying a commemorative wreath at Portadown War Memorial. A similar wreath laying took place the following year, before Adair once again led a party of six on his annual journey to the Demesne. Accompanying Adair on 13th July 1944 were George H. Dickson, T. Raymond, William N. Hurst, J.G. McCann, and 80-year-old J. Tedford. Two pipers led the dedicated group around the grounds of the historic house.
By July 1945, the people of Northern Ireland had celebrated Victory in Europe. As the “Thirteenth” came around, proceedings returned to almost normality. Thousands of marchers and onlookers descended on the Co. Down village of Scarva but the “sham fight” did not take place. There was a return to the pageantry, the pomp, and the colourful banners and flags of pre-war parades. There was also a return to Scarva for the 72-year-old Worshipful Master of Portadown District, Sir Knight and Brother Alex Adair, who had by then not missed a 13th July in Scarva for 63 years.
Alex Adair J.P. died on 15th July 1952 at his sister’s residence at 25 Lavinia Street, Belfast. Part of his obituary in the Portadown News read:
Mr. Adair, who was in his 80th year, was born on August 15, 1872, the day of the Scarva disturbance, which was subsequently to give rise to the sham fight held there each year. He took great pride in the fact that his father had been present on the day of the actual fight at Scarva and on arrival home found a son added to the family circle.
Mr. Adair made the annual pilgrimage to Scarva every “Thirteenth”, and during the late war when the celebrations came under the Government ban on processions and outdoor demonstrations, he and a few old friends went to Scarva each 13th July and traversed the familiar walk through the demesne. Had he been well to attend there on Monday last, he would have been celebrating a series of seventy unbroken visitations.