As the Year 8 students left school for the day, I passed one of my colleagues, a woman from Co Antrim.
“It’s the 13th July,” I said, “we have missed the sham fight at Scarva.”
“We’re a long way from that,” she smiled.
When living in Northern Ireland, the 13th July was a strange day to an Englishman trying to come to terms with the place.
It was a public holiday or a bank holiday – I never remember which. It was as confusing as Easter where Good Friday was a bank holiday, but not a public one, and Easter Tuesday was a public holiday, but not a bank one.
I never understood why either Easter Tuesday or 13th July were holidays of any sort. Some of the followers of Orange affairs would go off to Scarva for the “sham fight.” An amateur re-enactment of the Boyne battle between William and James, which seemed rather dull any time it appeared on television.
There was always the temptation to say to the supporters of the Williamite cause heading off for the day that they of course realized that the Pope supported the Prince of Orange because he was seen as a bulwark against the growing power of Louis XIV of France. The temptation was easily resisted, the facts of history were never allowed to get in the way of a good story.
The facts of history were depicted in Pieter van der Muelen’s painting, The Entry of King William into Ireland, which was hung in the House of Commons at Stormont when it opened. Pope Innocent XI is shown, seated in the clouds, pronouncing a blessing as he looks down on William.
When Stormont parliamentarians realized what the picture showed, some were outraged. John W. Nixon, an independent Unionist was foremost among the objectors, his protest at the papal presence is said to have elicited prime minister Craig’s declaration, “I am an Orangeman first and a Protestant and a member of parliament afterwards . . . All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.”
There were Protestants of more violent inclination who were visiting Stormont in 1933. Charles Forester and Mary Ratcliffe of the Scottish Protestant League visited the parliament building with the intention of destroying the painting. Forester threw red paint over the image of the pope and Ratcliffe slashed the canvas with a knife. The pair were fined £65 at Downpatrick court and the painting was restored at the cost of £32 10 Shillings. The painting then disappeared into storage for more than fifty years.
A real recalling of the significance of the battle would have a papal figure applauding the man on the white horse.
The facts would, however, spoil the story.