Friday, December 21, 2018

The Scarvagh 'Sham Fight' was saved in 1904 by Henry Thomson's whiskey money

IMG 0383

Often Ulster’s unionist story is told as a selective, religious and conservative tale. But that’s not the full story - the more I read the more I’m finding whiskey money all over the place. James Craig, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland was part of the Royal Irish Distilleries global empire, and he even bought a hot water geyser in Iceland in the 1890s with a view to setting up a plant there (link here - a story widely known in Iceland).

• Further south, I recently discovered that Abbey Presbyterian Church in Dublin was built in 1864, entirely by the money of Glasgow-born Dublin wine and spirit merchant Alexander Findlater - at a cost of £13,000 which today is around £1.25million. His brother William Findlater was a merchant in Londonderry, and their sister Helen Findlater also settled in the Maiden City.

• Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral was restored in the 1870s by whiskey distiller George Roe to the tune of £230,000 - around £21.5million today.

• Interestingly, even the Irish whiskey giant John Jameson (1740-1823) whose surname is probably the most famous Irish whiskey brand, was actually a Scottish lawyer and distiller based in Dublin. He was born in Alloa, where he later died and was buried.

The annual ‘Sham Fight’ at Scarvagh House has been going for 185 years, re-enacting in very small scale the Battle of the Boyne. In the mid 1800s there were similar fights at Gilford and Banbridge. Tradition tells that in 1690 when William III’s army was camped at Scarva, a local man called Reilly brought cherries and fresh eggs to the troops, and as a reward William promised him as much land in the area as he could walk in one day. So Reilly set about it the very next morning, staking out the boundaries and later planting marker trees where the stakes were. The famous old manor house was built in 1717. A newspaper report of 1939 said that the trees were then still standing.

The ‘Sham Fight’ was originally held in the open at Aughlish crossroads. However according to the Dublin Evening Mail of 16 August 1865 a ‘counter-demonstration’ was held in the village by a group of around 350 ‘Fenians’, who marched from Laurencetown to Gilford and then towards Scarva. The 60th Rifles from Newry were sent to keep the peace, along with local police.

The Reillys then offered that the event be relocated to within their estate for 1866 - seemingly with Mr Reilly himself performing the role of William III. The Dublin Evening Mail gave an amusing account on 6 October 1866 of the first one -

‘… a most alarming condition of good feeling and jocularity was proved to exist between the Protestants and Roman Catholics of the district. The Roman Catholics and Orangemen are good friends at Gilford ...' 

The 1867 Scarva events - as reported in the Newry Telegraph - read like a full-scale day-long carnival with 15,000 visitors and the fight lasting for just over an hour. Scarvagh estate remained in the Reilly family until 1904, when it was put up for sale and the future of the ‘Sham Fight’ was at risk.

Enter Henry Thomson Jr (1840-1917), a local whisky millionaire (see previous post here) and prominent Unionist and Orangeman, who had been an MP in the 1880s as well as High Sheriff for County Down. He bought the Scarvagh estate and in doing so preserved the future of the ‘Sham Fight’ in perpetuity - he also gave land for Scarvagh Orange Hall to be built and which opened in 1908.

Other Thomson properties included Ballyedmond Castle, Downshire House and Altnaveigh House where in 1884 a vast 12th demonstration was held, with a reported crowd of 50,000 people and participants. Another branch of the Thomson family lived at Ravensdale in County Louth.

Henry Thomson died in Scarvagh House in 1917, was buried in St Patrick’s churchyard in Newry. His coffin was carried into the church by the officers of Altnaveigh LOL. and his obituary in the Belfast News Letter stated:

‘he secured to the Orangemen the right to use for ever eight acres of the Scarvagh House demesne for celebrations on the 12th and 13th July and the 12th of August each year. By this and other gracious acts he earned the undying gratitude of the Orange Institution, and his memory will be fondly cherished by the members of that Order in all parts of the Empire.

Newry reporter


A memorial Orange hall in Newry was built in his honour. His properties, and seemingly the whiskey business, were inherited by his nephew, Henry Broughton Thomson (1870-1939) who became a politician in British Columbia, was Food Controller for Canada during the Great War and later the Chairman of the Liquor Control Board.

In 1936, just three years before Henry Broughton Thomson died, Scarvagh estate was sold again, this time to Alfred Buller of Orangefield in Belfast, a land steward for Major Blakiston-Houston.