Freemasonry is often shrouded in mystery based on myths, misconceptions and hearsay with most people knowing hardly anything about its history or purpose. Britain has over 200,000 members meeting in almost 7,000 Lodges. In Ireland’s 32 counties, there are around 22,000 members (approximately 8,000 in Northern Ireland and the remainder in the Republic), collectively having authority over 13 Provincial Lodges. Interestingly, the Grand Lodge of Ireland, situated in Dublin, is the world’s second most senior Grand Lodge of Freemasons and the oldest Lodge still in use, dating back to the eighteenth century.
The society was formed during the Middle Ages as a guild of skilled builders. They developed their handshakes to show what type of stonemason they were and their qualifications. History is peppered with many famous Freemasons, including American Presidents (George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt), Sir Winston Churchill, Buzz Aldrin, Nat King Cole, Mozart, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Dickens. St John the Baptist is the Patron Saint of Freemasons. Freemason mythology states that the first Freemason was Hiram, who built King Solomon’s temple. There exists a story of how the Queen of Sheba visited the King bearing gifts of gold after it was built. He was obviously smitten with her because she later bore him a son.
The Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon at his temple
Only men are allowed to become Freemasons. This restriction dates back to when Stonemasons were all men, however, women can enter the Lodges as guests at social functions. Although the minimum joining age is eighteen, the average age of new members is around fifty. The society has few members under the age of forty, and those who join are mainly white, middle-class and grey. Every member must believe in a Supreme Being as an entry requirement, although discussing religion and politics is strictly banned. Members tend to join through word of mouth from family and friends or when a freemason proposes another person. Character checks are conducted, and anybody deemed dishonest, lacking integrity, or with a criminal record is barred from joining. The dress code is black suit and tie, and senior members (Master Masons) wear morning suits.
Freemasonry is not a secretive society. It is a society with secrets (wry smile). People do not know what we are about, so they start creating their own stories. I am a retired engineer, so for me, it is a continuation of my life and a way of meeting good people because Freemasonry is about being sociable and expanding friendship groups. There is a formality to it which involves everyone having to decide how much time, effort, and dedication they are willing to put into it learning lines to the rituals. Some people love this and find it expands their mind. Freemasonry is based on three principles: to look after the less fortunate, to live a good life and be remembered for the right reasons. I am interested in contributing to charity and raising money for worthy causes. It is a myth that Freemasons help each other out financially or do business deals among themselves. Trust me, if someone joins for that reason, they will soon discover that it does not cater for those who are in it for the get – rather, it is for those who are in it for the give.
Most Freemason Lodges are known as Craft Lodges, where members rank in three categories – Entered Apprenticeships, Fellow Crafts and Master Masons. There are different secrets, oaths, and rituals to discover and learn with each rank, with all freemasons needing to learn lines that can take several hours to practice. Ceremonies usually last an hour and a half. Each has a theme, consisting of a playlet involving a ritual based on ancient principles and references to the Bible. The ancient rituals and oaths used are based on the great rulers of the world before and after Christ. In more advanced Grand Lodges, there are around seventeen Masonic Degrees – the main theme of these is linked to the Old Testament (from Noah and King David to the building of King Solomon’s temple) and another eleven Masonic Degrees that feature in the New Testament. Seventy percent of members, it is estimated, are happy to remain in Craft Lodges doing just the three basic levels, known in the society as the ‘bread and butter’ freemasons.
Some Freemasons are Guardian readers and Left-wing, but there are few MPs or judges, contrary to the myth that Freemasons are taking over the country. If you look at other European countries – Italy, for example – you will find radical people like political activists who are certainly not people in powerful jobs. In Northern Ireland, you could say that two things unite Ireland, rugby and Freemasonry, but I find richer freemasons in Southern Ireland less welcoming. Some men join because they feel a need for spiritual input, while others like the regimental aspect, including different ranks, and then some join for the social aspect, including dinners and meeting new people. Although members in Britain are older white men, this is different in London and other cities. I have a friend who is a Black person and an ex-soldier. Freemasonry is popular in the Caribbean. Freemasons try to keep prejudice to a minimum. Gay people are welcome, and Muslims and Jews can swear on the Qur’an or Torah.
There are many little quirks involved in Freemasonry rituals, including the blindfolding of an entered apprentice when taken into the chamber for the first time. While ceremonies are in progress, an outer guard called a ‘Tyler’ provides security to ensure nobody enters the chamber and disturbs the ceremony. New candidates are assessed on emblematic meanings in the first degrees. A new master is installed into the ‘Chair of King Solomon’ by his predecessor and other past masters. All masons are given and required to wear a ‘Jewel’ (a medal-type badge), which reveals the lodge they are attached to and the degree they hold. Freemasons promise to keep the secrets of their degree from lower degrees and outsiders as far as possible.
Freemasons are very keen on supporting both national and regional charitable causes. They only turn down a cause that would have little benefit for humanity. At fundraising dinners (known as Festive Boards), proceeds are gathered for the master’s chosen charity. In Britain, toasts are given to the King and the group’s grand master, the Duke of Kent. Most freemasons are estimated to give up to £500 a year to charity through their Lodge.
For centuries, the Catholic Church has forbidden its members from becoming freemasons and have, in the past, labelled it as a ‘Synagogue of Satan.’ Even until 40 years ago, the Church declared that Catholics who enrolled in masonic associations were in a state of grave sin and should not receive Holy Communion. The grievance seems to stem from the eighteenth century when some Grand Lodges were supposedly ‘de-Christianised’ by opening them to men of all faiths. This soured their relationship with the Church – particularly the Catholic Church and the Vatican, who initially aired concerns about Freemasonry’s secret rituals having a demonic element.
In conclusion, if someone seeks to find anything satanic or evil in Freemasonry, there is a strong likelihood their search will be in vain. The truth seems to be nowhere near as outrageous as conspiracy theorists would have people believe. Instead, Freemasonry rituals appear to be just esoteric traditions and conventions which are undeserving of the fascination they receive. Furthermore, we live in the internet age, where secrets are quickly and easily revealed. Admittedly, some may say that Freemasonry tends to attract a certain type of personality who is mainly austere, conservative, or eccentric. But ultimately, many find companionship and pursuits that satisfy their souls and, as in the words of Polonius in Hamlet, ‘to each their own.’
Published in Ireland’s Eye magazine – October 2023.
Declan Henry was born in County Sligo in Ireland and now lives in Kent. He is the author of eight books. His website can be viewed at: www.declanhenry.co.uk