Masonic mystery

The Freemasons have been in Ireland for 300 years and have 22,000 members. Stephen Rogers goes in search of what happens behind the doors of lodges where their meetings take place

The Freemasons do not describe what goes on at their meetings, because, they say, ‘ to reveal what goes on in detail would spoil the enjoyment of the ceremonies for those who have yet to participate in them’. Picture: Michael MacSweeney

The Stonecutters episode of The Simpsons, Terry Pratchett novels, and a handshake.

Three images which popped unbidden into my head when the word “freemasons” was mentioned to me. After that, a blank.

They have been in Ireland for more than 300 years and have 22,000 members here — 6m across the world — yet few of the uninitiated know anything about the 850 lodges or what goes on within their walls.

Ignorance breeds mistrust. The secretive nature of the lodges, the mysterious rituals, the unbendable membership rules, and elaborate admission criteria (only men believed to be of “good character” are favourably considered for membership) have led to deep suspicion among the vast majority of the public who haven’t committed to what the Grand Masonic Lodge of Ireland describes as “one of the world’s oldest fraternal societies”. It also doesn’t help that many of the world’s masonic orders have an “all-seeing eye” somewhere on their emblem.

It does little to detract from the rumours that persist that the Freemasons across the world are plotting to create a new world order, or that they have a hand in corruption in police forces andjudicial systems across the world. Their image also wasn’t helped when Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik listed freemasonry as one his interests.

The order’s document Freemasonry in Ireland paints a picture of a group of men dedicated to improving the society in which we live. “Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest fraternal societies and has flourished in Ireland for more than 300 years, bringing together men of goodwill and integrity, tolerant of the beliefs of others, charitable in disposition, and striving to achieve high moral standards in every aspect of their daily lives,” it says.

What is not made clear to the non-member in the document is what the Freemasons actually do when they meet once a month, nine months each year.

According to Morgan McCreadie, assistant to the grand secretary, the truth is somewhat less mysterious than the reality.

“Sometimes very little happens other than the usual series of minutes and reports which occur at a meeting of any society. However, the brethren do wear masonic aprons and there is an opening ceremony — a ritual which defines the meeting as masonic. There is nothing particularly ‘secret’ about this. The officers process into the lodge room and are instructed by the master to take their places. The meeting then proceeds, sometimes including a ceremony to pass or raise a brother to another degree or grade in the order. These are ceremonies which we cannot put a date on but most probably evolved during the 17th century drawing on a number of sources and traditions.”

There is further information on

“ Items on an agenda are taken sequentially and will typically involve a ceremony, involving a candidate, which dramatises his inner growth in morality and ethics, using the symbols and metaphors of biblical revelation and the tools of the medieval stonemasons... The atmosphere is convivial, but dignified. The meeting is usually followed by a supper or dinner, called a festive board, depending on the occasion, which is again convivial. If this description appears limited, it is not because masons have sinister secrets to hide, but because to reveal what goes on in detail would spoil the enjoyment of the ceremonies for those who have yet to participate in them.”

Mr McCreadie admits the masonic order did create a mystique about itself, particularly in the early days.

“Today, this is rarely the case, particularly in Ireland where there is nothing secret. In the early 18th century, many Freemasons were Jacobites which was a political view which did not endear them to the establishment. During the 19th century, Freemasons were Whigs and Liberals and in the case of Irish Freemasons, most definitely supporters of Home Rule. Today it is a bit like the story of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ — suddenly masons have realised that they have nothing to hide.”

A belief in a higher power is a prerequisite — the first condition of admission into, and membership of, the order is a belief in “the Supreme Being”. Yet no religious discussion is permitted because “freemasonry is neither a religion nor a religious organisation”.

Political discussion is also a no-no because “freemasonry is non-political”.

“Many organisations exist which claim to be ‘masonic’, but because they are either political or sectarian the Grand Lodge of Ireland does not recognise them and will not permit any contact with them,” the rules state.

There have been many links drawn between the freemasons and the Orange Order, something which Mr McCreadie is keen to dismiss.

“The Orange Order has no connection whatsoever with the masonic order. However, in historic terms the Orange Order was established by Freemasons in Armagh in 1796. It’s easy to see how the similar terminology and regalia causes confusion in the public mind. However, the masonic order is open to all who believe in a supreme being. Many other bodies have taken the structure of freemasonry as a basis for their organisation, not least Alcoholics Anonymous, whose system of indi-vidual self-supporting groups is analogous to the masonic system of lodges. Specifically in certain border areas, the masonic order is perceived by some as some sort of higher branch of the Orange institution. This is clearly incorrect and it is important to tell people what we are not as well as what we do stand for.”

The order paints an all-encompassing picture of its admission criteria and treatment of members but most non-members imagine it is mainly attended by men nearing the end of their working lives. This is a misconception, says Mr McCreadie.

“The age profile has dropped radically since I joined. At 37 years old then, I was quite a young mason, in Dublin anyway. Today I would say the average age joining the order is late 20s or early 30s, which clearly brings down the overall profile.

“We are forbidden to ask anyone to join but membership is actually increasing, at least in the southern part of the island. It is specifically in this secular environment that freemasonry comes into its own. It’s a secular group. which welcomes all religious denominations as we are forbidden to discuss religion or politics — that which unites men, also divides.”

However, while occupation and pastime outside the lodge is a matter for an individual, any form of law-breaking and the mason will be shown the ornate door.

According to the Grand Masonic Orient of Ireland, historians of the subject believe they emerged from the medieval stonemasons who built cathedrals and castles — that may explain the most popular Freemasons emblem, the compass and square, which was used to test the accuracy of the sides of a stone to ascertain that the stone’s angles matched the square’s “true” right angle.

These stonemasons would gather in huts and lean-tos to rest and eat. Over time these structures began to house groups of masons, allowing them to regulate their craft and develop initiation ceremonies for new apprentices.

“As stonemasons could easily travel all over the country from one building site to another, and as there were also no trade union cards or certificates of apprenticeship or mastership, they began to adopt a private word, which a travelling stonemason could use when he arrived at a new site to prove that he was properly trained and had been a member of a lodge,” the history of the stonemasons says. “It was, after all, easier to communicate a special word to prove that you knew what you were doing and were entitled to the wages it deserved than to spend hours carving a block of stone to demonstrate your skills. That is the origin of passwords and grips.”

“Grips” brings us to one of the characteristics most associated with the Freemasons — the handshake.

Earlier this year Nigel Brown, the grand secretary of the United Grand Lodge in Britain, told the BBC there was no such thing as a secret handshake and that professional networking is forbidden under masonic rules.

But then again, he would say that. After all there is an oath not to reveal the signs used to identify a fellow Freemason. It has been claimed the grip exists and that a recipient will feel pressure between the second and third fingers before the thumb switches position and the recipient feels a sensation like a mild electric shock.

People find many reasons to ridicule the masons. But to dismiss their gatherings out of hand is to forget the foundations on which they are built. After all, 14 American presidents, more than one third of them all, were masons, including George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

It is also to forget the strong position they have held in Irish society. The Liberator Daniel O’Connell was a Freemason until he was forced to resign after pressure was put on him by Archbishop Troy of Dublin.

In Cork in 1789 it was the Ancient and Honourable Societies of Freemasons that was behind the opening of St Patrick’s Bridge.

The honour of naming the new bridge was given to the grand master, Lord Donoughmore, who after declaring it open then led his fellow masons across the structure to survey the works.

Nonetheless, orders dispute the fact that many who join the Freemasons see it as a means of opening doors to a network of influential connections who can help their own commercial futures immeasurably.

The Freemasons describe themselves as a “caring organisation” which for 200 years has been “concerned with the welfare of young and old” and that where funds are available they are disbursed where the need is greatest. Those funds come from members’ voluntary contributions, fundraising activities, and “income from monies accumulated and invested in past years which are prudently managed”.

While not strictly speaking a charitable organisation, the order is a benevolent body in the Latin sense of goodwill, and from goodwill we would expect that charity should flow, says Mr McCreadie.

“We had the name in the past of ‘looking after our own’. We certainly have internal charities for the education of the children of deceased brethren, and also for their widows. We also look outwards, and fund projects as diverse as medical research, the Laura Lynn Children’s’ Hospice, the Samaritans, to name some.

“Individual lodges around the country, of which there are about 850, often concentrate on a local charity, and involve themselves in fundraising for that charity, rather than channelling their finds through the grand lodge.”

Last month, a Kerrywoman became only the second in Ireland to be accepted into an Irish lodge. Her acceptance came 300 years after the first.

Caroline Wollk, a retired teacher from Kilgarvan, was initiated into Wolfe Tone Lodge No 3, based in Ballincollig, Co Cork.

The key to her acceptance is that the lodge is a member of the Grand Masonic Orient of Ireland and is affiliated to the Grand Orient de France. Irish masons and masons from Continental Europe decided in 2010 to establish a new and liberal system of masonry in Ireland.

This entity insists it is an alternative to and not competition for the more traditional, conservative all-male orders.

Mr McCreadie admits the exclusion of women from traditional mason lodges arises from a “most unliberal attitude” dating back to pre-runners to the Suffragettes.

“Why not change it now? Freemasonry is an inverted pyramid supported by three main bodies: The Grand Lodge of England, Ireland, and Scotland. So an artificial structure without spiritual, or indeed economic or political base, freemasonry worldwide is actually quite fragile and could easily be destabilised by divergence from the ancient landmarks by one of the brother grand lodges. It is therefore unlikely to change within the system of regular freemasonry.”

The liberals point out that in the 21st century women are “more and more enjoying the same rights and duties as men”.

“They pursue successful professional careers, some of them are political figures, ministers in governments, or heads of state,” they say.

“Therefore we believe that men and women are complementary, in freemasonry as well as everyday life and that the inclusion of women can only be of benefit to all. In the totality of the global community of freemasonry, the craft can no longer ignore half of the population in the world.”

Their brand of freemasonry has so far attracted 40 members to the Grand Masonic Orient of Ireland, with numbers “increasing all the time”.


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