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Sham Fight

The Sham Fight is an annual mock Battle of the Boyne played out on 13 July at Scarva Demesne, Co. Down. The thirteenth demonstration has a special atmosphere and even though Williamite victory over the forces of James in the Sham Fight is an inevitability, adults and children watch agog as the ‘Royal’ principals jostle in sword play down the green lawns of the spacious demesne… the old Orange standards of The Sash and Derry’s Walls bring gaiety to the scene, but there is also the religious touch with the hymns of Newton and Wesley… It seems originally to have been an undisciplined affair, with all day the noise of battle rolling around the fields of Auglish (a townland beside Scarva village) as the rival ‘armies’ manoeuvred and ‘massacred’ each other, historians tell us. Only gradually did it attain the dignity of its present status, sponsored first by the Orange Order and now by the Black Institution.

Billy Kennedy, A Celebration 1690 – 1990: The Orange Institution (Belfast 1990), pp. 30-32.

To God Be The Glory I, Scarva, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and watercolours, 48.5cms x 56cms, 1992

To God Be The Glory II, Scarva, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and watercolours, 48cms x 55.5cms, 1992

… the whole point of the Sham Fight, of course, is that the outcome is assured. It's an example of a community telling its own reassuring story to itself and, as Walter Benjamin observed, citing the example of Scheharezade, story-telling is a way of postponing the future. As the writer Adam Phillips sees it in his book Terrors and Experts, ritual can be a means of managing fear. The superstitious person and the phobic "enact a reliability, a predictability they know to be precarious - a certainty the future cannot guarantee. They behave as if they know what they are frightened of; if they did not believe they knew this, there would be no solution available; their fear is an act of faith. It has to have - or it has to construct - a relatively stable referent, otherwise the ritual solution would be felt to be hopelessly ineffectual."

Sham Fight (with Sword), Scarva, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, inks, bleach and gouache, 43cms x 56cms, 1992

The periodic re-enactment of a ritualised fear, or of the ritualised banishment of a notional fear, is a defence against an unknowable, unpredictable and uncontrollable future. In fact Freud boldly ascribes the existence of religions to the continuity in adulthood of the helplessness of the infant, its fearful dependence on the love of its carers, a love shadowed by the constant possibility, the abiding threat, of its loss. This threat spurs us "to secure something that by definition cannot be secured....we acknowledge that the future cannot be guaranteed; and then we set out to guarantee it." Although fear "is a state of mind in which the object of knowledge is the is, of course, a knowledge that can only be derived from the the same token, knowledge born of fear closes down the future."

Sham Fight (with Gun), Scarva, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, inks, bleach and gouache, 43cms x 56cms, 1992

So often the loyalist project in Northern Ireland has seemed to be precisely that, to close down the future, to make sure that the future is merely a repetition of the past. The reiterated, underlying certainty that emerges in Sloan's acerbic exploration of loyalism is that the theatrical representation is inadequate not only to the demands of the future but even to the reality of the past. It is riddled with corrosive inconsistencies which not only prevent it from neutralising or obviating the future, but ensure the disintegration of the loyalist dream itself through sheer self-contradiction. The events of the last decade lend his 1980s work an exceptional and prophetic force.

Policeman, Scarva, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and watercolours, 43cms x 55.5cms, 1992

It's reasonable to see the dramatic, seismic disjunctures of the pictorial surface of the various marching season images as corresponding to strains and fissures in any notionally agreed social and political fabric, a sign of inherent instability. But the gestural language of the marks goes further than that. There are specific suggestions that the periodic rehearsal of theatricalised history, the past apparently disarmed and re-enacted as play, as a prophylactic against the future, must at some point translate into real conflict in the present, must face up to the problems its representations imply for and perhaps foment in the present. The props in the carnival, the umbrellas and swords, become lethal weapons, the Sham Fight mirrors and must become a real fight. And yet again, the inescapable conclusion is that loyalism is self-destructive.

Extracts from A Broken Surface: Victor Sloan's Photographic Work by Aidan Dunne in Victor Sloan: Selected Works 1980-2000, published by Ormeau Baths Gallery and Orchard Gallery, January, 2001

Policeman II, Scarva, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and watercolours, 43cms x 55.5cms, 1992

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