Irish Independent Weekend - 08/03/03

The following article appeared in the Irish Independent Weekend magazine on 8th March 2003 

LODGED IN THE CONSCIENCE

"It depends what you're after", said Michael Walker, Grand Secretary. I had called Freemasons' Hall looking to write a piece on the Craft as it negotiated the first twists and turns of the 21st century. The voice on the phone sounded stern, defensive. Tired of being traduced by a society that was "all rights and no responsibilities", Mr Walker respectfully cut to the chase. Were we on a balanced inquiry or "a witch hunt"?

Years ago, it was commonplace for detailed reports on Masonic meetings to appear in the local press. Somewhere along the line, things got confused. Rumours of secret signs and sinister self-interest caught the public imagination. The Order withdrew from routine misrepresentation and pillorying, and became more introverted. Today, in an attempt to rescue their image, masons are once again talking openly. But the fundamental problem remains: few outsiders know what freemasonry is for.

"Freemasonry wishes to make good men better," says Eric Waller, Grand Master. To join, one must simply ask. Membership is open to all men of integrity and goodwill, irrespective of colour or creed, on condition that they profess a belief in a Supreme Being. There is a vetting process, but few are turned away. The candidate should come with "a desire for knowledge and wishing to make himself more extensively useful amongst his fellow men". Once accepted, he must promote the bonds of friendship, compassion and brotherly love.

He will do this in a number of ways. Most conspicuously, the Order donates 2.5m to charitable causes every year. This June, a sheltered housing project will open in Virginia, Co. Cavan, providing 26 bungalows for the elderly. An ongoing project at Belfast City Hospital, which provides cochlear implants for congenitally deaf children, is funded by the Freemason's Medical Research Fund. In 1996, a Grand Masters Festival of Charity underwrote the purchase of nine ambulances for the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland.

"One gets out of life what one puts into it," Mr Waller continues. The masons are not registered charity; they simply aspire to be part of society and not apart from it.

"They stick to you when you're down," as Joyce has it in Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom is rumoured a member. Caring for widows and dependants by way of annuities, the Order proudly assists members in distress, and funds created from the sales of Masonic schools provide for the education of around 450 students. One member I met was undergoing a course of chemotherapy. "They put my, daughter through college," he said.

THE ALLEGORY AND THE SYMBOL

Understandably perhaps, masons are bemused at the popular impression of cabalistic and cigar-chomping 'old pals' doing each other favours over the festive board. Much of this, it has to be said, is due to the arcane traditions to which they are wilfully addicted. Theirs is "a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols", and one must parse the very roots of craftsmanship to understand it.

One of the world's oldest fraternal societies, freemasonry stems from the travelling craftsmen who built the great cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages, and who formed guilds to maintain skill levels and protect trade secrets. As the status and reputation of these guilds increased, so they grew to incorporate honorary members. Once trade unionism and education formalised at a national level, such 'free'‑masons came to populate the lodges almost exclusively.

Today meetings are formal affairs, processing lodge business according to strict and antique protocol. Dress is based on aprons, collars and gauntlets, and derives from protective garments worn by the original masons. The Bible is opened as a reminder of God's Law, though in other countries this could just as easily be, say, the Koran. Any ceremonial business is heavily symbolic, designed to echo and reinforce the moral lessons being imparted. Where you and I see a square, the mason sees virtue. Where we see a compass, the mason sees "a symbolic circumscribing of the passions."

Not that one should get too bogged down. Beneath sober portraits in the Grand Lodge Room, Eric Waller paused to ask our photographer, "Do you know how to light these candles? It's a masonic secret I don't know." At another point, I wondered what the MW in his title stood for. "Most Worshipful," he said, smiling mischievously. Clearly, he enjoyed freemasonry's moral structure and convivial elegance. On points of protocol, however, he was deeply serious. "Yes, secret handshakes exist and no, they are not used outside of a Masonic context." The equivalent of "a modern swipe card or PIN number", such signals are a means of identification only. Equally, initiation rites are shared experiences designed to impart these signals and "bind the members together". Talk of rolled‑up trousers, bare breasts and silk nooses is moot. What matters are the values Masonic symbols represent: Truth, Benevolence and Brotherhood.

Still, the doubts remain. "Can all the rituals be merely symbolic?" asks Martin Short, author of The Brotherhood, who argues that a heavy concentration of masons in law and policing perverts justice in the UK. "One must presume that people join lodges predominantly to feather their own nests, and to form a loose combination against the interests of everybody who is not a mason."

"That's complete and utter rubbish," says Selwyn Davies, chairman of the Metropolitan Board of General Purposes. "Of course there is the odd bad apple; of course masons network, just as members of any club will. But there is nothing sinister involved. We have always frowned upon having lodges made up of special interest groups." Eric Waller is adamant: "It does not happen in Ireland, full stop."

Even so, Masonic conspiracy theories are as old as the Craft. "Their first and immediate aim is to get the possession of riches, power, and influence," wrote John Robison, a professor of Natural Philosophy, in 1798. "To accomplish this, they want to abolish Christianity; and then dissolute manners and universal profligacy will procure them the adherents of all the wicked, and enable them to overturn all the civil governments of Europe."

In 1826, a papal Bull against secret societies forced many Catholic masons, including Daniel O'Connell, to resign from their lodges. Even today, the pyramid and eye on the dollar bill are peddled as evidence of a covert organisation using front groups to spread their influence. "People think we're some kind of sect," admits Mr Waller, wearily. "We're not. There is no world organisation or international Masonic UN." If anything, one is more likely to see conspiracy in the songs of Nat King Cole or the plays of Oscar Wilde, masons both. Mozart, Peter Sellers, John Wayne, Edmund Burke and Gershwin could also feature on that list, although rank and file members in Ireland come from all walks of life: electricians, plumbers, financiers, doctors, accountants, lawyers and priests. "There are no senior legal people involved. It just happens that way, it's not deliberate on our part."

THE ONLY WOMAN EVER ALLOWED

In deference to tradition, women are excluded. No laws are being broken here, masons point out, and they have experienced no demand for inclusion, amongst either members or lobby groups. The only woman ever admitted was Elizabeth St Leger, in 1712. Having eavesdropped a meeting in her father's house in Doneraile, she was promptly sworn into membership and, therefore, secrecy.

The legend does little for transparency, but then the European Court of Human Rights has declared that freemasonry is not a secret society. Provisions also exist for suspension and expulsion in cases of 'unmasonic' conduct. Masons do not consider themselves above the law. "If someone is convicted of a criminal offence, they :are summarily asked to leave," Mr Davies explained. "It is not common, but it does happen" .

One reason for confusion is the sheer sluice of organisations calling themselves Masonic. In Italy, there are almost 60; in France, there are three grand lodges, only one of which Irish masons recognise. "It's a nightmare, a minefield. Many such organisations are what we call 'irregular' they do not keep away from religion and politics. We disassociate ourselves from that completely."

The previous Saturday, an estimated 100,000 anti-war demonstrators had marched up Kildare Street, just steps from Freemasons' Hall. Globally, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims seemed more alienated than ever. Our institutions of spiritual authority were fast losing credibility. In this context, would statements from such an avowedly moral organisation not be valuable? "It is just a basic principle of freemasonry that we do not make public pronouncements on major issues," Mr Waller replies. Members have their own beliefs and opinions, and the Order prides itself in bringing them together under a common bond. "One way or the other you would get drawn into controversy and people would: ask your views on something else ‑ it's the thin end of the wedge:".

Or indeed, a cop‑out. Nevertheless, this is how the Grand Lodge of Ireland has been operating since 1725: The administrative HQ and governing body for hundreds of subordinate lodges and 27,000 individual masons, the term 'lodge' derives from the temporary lean‑to structures used by craftsmen. Funded by subs, lodges meet once a month and are located all over the island and as far afield as in Australia, New Zealand, India and the Far East. It is said that the sun never sets on Irish freemasonry.

PURPOSEFUL AS CHESS PIECES

Unless recruitment picks up, that may change. My first impression of Freemasons' Hall was of a beautiful building, but rather a staid one. Those I met moved about as purposefully as chess pieces. There were pin‑stripe suits, an old-school museum. Grand Master Waller, his gloves spotlessly white; said freemasonry fitted him "like a sports jacket or a pair of old slippers."

A recent article in the London Independent, written by a mason's son, put it bluntly: "Freemasonry provides the perfect hobby for bored, middle-aged men engaged in undemanding jobs who hanker for a faintly exotic social life. Such people are not perhaps as common as they once were."

"For a young person it's not an immediately exciting experience," agrees Mr Waller, who was made a mason at the age of 25. Today, members join in their mid‑30s and in smaller numbers - a trend he attributes to social change rather than the Order's inherent conservatism. "People work strange hours, they come home late, they have little time for anything outside of family."

Irish society is also read as increasingly secular, materialistic and beset with selfishness. Hardly front-page material. To illustrate, however, Mr. Waller refers to the Balls Bridge Square. Unearthed when Limerick's famous bridge was excavated in 1830, a mason's tool dating from 1507 was found, bearing the inscription: 'I will strive to live with love and care, upon the level by the square.'

TERRIBLE INDICTMENT OF SOCIETY

"I certainly found in my latter years in business, that you were something of an anachronism if you conducted your affairs in an honest and ethical way, which I think is a terrible indictment of society generally. Freemasonry must move into the 21st century, and we are attempting to be frank and open. But our core principles have remained unchanged for hundreds of years and will continue to do so. There's nothing old‑fashioned about honesty and integrity."

This strikes me as a brave statement to make in 2003. Many nice things happened on the day we met, but you know the story - in general, the news was disgusting. There was arson, suicide bombers, impending war. There was also a letter in the papers, written by Mr Walker, pitching freemasonry as "a beacon, a point of reference, a sheet anchor to its members" in days of "ever‑lessening values and standards". The tone was undoubtedly superior, but there was more to it than that. To his eyes, far from stuffy and irrelevant, masonry was a match lit in, the darkness.

Control, ritual, tradition - granted they are all alternatives to cynicism, but is freemasonry really "the antidote to society's ills"? Selwyn Davies opened his briefcase in the Grand Lodge Room, revealing a Masonic apron, tie and gloves. Amongst the plush carpets and wooden ballot boxes he found "a basic moral standard", a friendly welcome all over the world (on a recent visit to Philadelphia, a brother drove 160 miles to take him to lunch). In such a society as ours, that might seem attractive to people "if they realised who we really were".

THE SIMPSONS AND THE STONECUTTERS

There's the rub. During the summer months Rebecca Hayes, Archivist at the Grand Lodge, conducts tours of Freemasons' Hall. She encounters mixed reactions, especially with regards to religion: "some people have fixed ideas that aren't strictly correct." I wondered whether she'd seen 'The Stonecutters' episode of The Simpsons, which mercilessly lampoons secret societies. She had, but that was before she began work at the Hall. "I wouldn't mind seeing it again though, knowing what I do now."

In essence, this is exactly what freemasonry would like us all to do. "I am only too conscious of the fact that the vast majority of the public probably considers us to be a sinister, secretive organisation," says Mr Waller. "From our side of the fence, this is almost laughable. Because we're honest‑to‑goodness ordinary people going about our everyday lives. We don't cause anybody any trouble, and freemasonry generally is a force for good in the community."

Nevertheless, the record must be set straight. "For donkey's years we were our own worst enemies. We kept too low a profile; we kept our heads below the parapet. When adverse comments appeared in the media, factual or otherwise, we chose to ignore them." They won't be hiring a PR agency just yet, but the masonic media presence will rise and their Grand Lodge will feature in Dublin Tourism's 2003 guidebook.

A stuffy sect to some, fun, fellowship and a moral code to others; at the end of the day it seems freemasonry is less a secret society than a society with a few secrets. And as the 21st century unrolls, they may become even fewer. "We are not yesterday's men," Selwyn Davies asserted. "Not at all," Mr Waller smiled. "If we were, would our web site have won awards? Would the Grand Lodge Room have been used for a jazz concert or a fashion show? Our doors aren't closed, you know!"

The Grand Lodge of Ireland can be found online at www.irish-freemasons.org.