There is nothing overly remarkable about Molesworth Street, the city-centre thoroughfare that links Dawson and Kildare Street. Perhaps the most notable feature of the street, that’s largely lined with hotels and non-descript buildings, is its location facing the seat of the Oireachtas, Leinster House. This opportune positioning means that it has become known for playing host to many a raucous protest in recent years. Number 17 appears lost amid the other structures. Perhaps simply because of the familiarity that comes with the popular thoroughfare, the passersby looks but doesn’t see. On closer inspection, formal brass letterboxes hint at the possibility of it housing civil service offices, giving it that formal and functional air. This seemingly austere building is actually the headquarters of the Irish branch of Freemasonry.
The ancient international fraternal body traces its origins back to the late 14th century as a union of stone masons, and has long been deemed overly secretive, mysterious and elitist. Any mention of the society will, for many, trigger memories of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the fictional work in which the organisation featured prominently. The popular legends, stories and conspiracy theories surrounding the Freemasons have brought them into modern-day popular culture, with its pinnacle being their debut in The Simpsons – a sure sign that a concrete public perception of Masonic culture exists. Common phrases that pepper the English language, such as “the third degree” and “square deal”, are rooted in Freemasonry. Many well-known organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, were founded by Freemasons. Furthermore, many internationally successful individuals claimed membership, including Mozart, Winston Churchill and Buzz Aldrin. With such presence in global pop culture and popular affairs there is a natural interest to dissect the inner workings of the once-secret society.
Many internationally successful individuals have claimed membership, including Mozart, Winston Churchill and Buzz Aldrin
Standing on the doorstep of Irish Freemasonry headquarters, I anticipated a rapid series of secret knocks, a rigorous interrogation by a doorman casting furtive glances at our camera and perhaps even hushed muttering of clandestine Latin codes to cross the threshold into the world of the ancient order. The reality was rather different, and far less dramatic. Although there was a doorbell, it didn’t work, and it seemed certain that the office would need to be contacted by phone. I was on the verge of ringing when our photographer did the unthinkable: she tried to push open their front door. It seems that the Masons, surprisingly, do, in fact, operate a door-is-always-open policy, as it swung open before us. Morgan McCreadie, assistant to the Grand Secretary, strolled down the narrow corridor. A tall man in his late fifties, he resembled a bank manager more so than the cloaked figure I had envisioned. His white mustache twitching, he beamed at us, wringing our hands in greeting and welcomed us to the lodge. McCreadie is an extremely likeable man. He talked non-stop, which was not what I expected of a member of such a group. This was the case to such an extent that I had to ring back later with questions I didn’t manage to ask. “This is guy stuff right, because Freemasonry essentially is group therapy for men” he explains – a surprisingly simplistic description of the infamous organisation.
The building, which acts at the Grand Lodge of Ireland, the organisation’s governing body in this country, would be impressive in itself even if it weren’t for its occupants. High, whitewashed ceilings, stunning Harry Clarke stained glass windows splashed with a vast spectrum of colours and a Hogwarts-esque staircase complete with a plush, warm runner, all come into view within the first few paces into the building. In the museum room at the end of the corridor, mannequins in Freemason garb are housed in glass cases and gold and silver artifacts are kept in glass cabinets, illuminated by overhead lights.
“Masonry was very much part of society. We used to advertise our meetings in the national papers”
“Freemasonry in Dublin probably started in the 1600s, late 1600s, although Grand Lodge wasn’t founded until 1725” says McCreadie. “Grand Lodge was founded 1725 and it more or less invented itself, in that there were already lodges operating, but this group in Dublin came together and decided to found a supervisory body” he continues, in the manner of a well-versed museum tour guide. He explains that, unlike in London where, thanks to the emergence of coffee-shop culture, members met in cafés, in Ireland, taverns located largely around Fishamble Street served as a meeting point for the Irish delegation. In a bid to establish some order over their pub-going flock, the Grand Lodge of Ireland introduced some regulations. “It said there was too much drinking going on and that they could only bring one jug of whisky into lodge meetings” he says, gesturing to his right where what seemed to constitute more of a bucket than a jug stands. And that isn’t even the jumbo jet of Freemasonry decanters apparently:“There’s actually bigger ones.” He gestures to his hip height: “There is one this high for Ennis lodge because they drink far more in the west of Ireland”.
McCreadie explains the history of the masons in international terms, one that is largely rooted in symbols. “The story of Freemasonry is based on the legend of the building of the temple of Solomon”, he says, pointing towards a cloth apron with various columns and symbols. This use of “legend” adds a fantastical element to the story of the masons: “I say legend because we’ve added bits onto the biblical story. Basically, you’ve got the two pillars at the entrance to the temple. One is terrestrial and the other is celestial, meaning that the principles that the masons try to live by are universal and they’re commandments that you find in any of the books of the book religions”. He gestures to the cloth again. “The black and red carpet, which you’ll see in a minute” he adds enthusiastically, “means good and evil. Throughout your life, you walk amongst good and evil”. He carries on pointing to the upper corners, “The smiley faces on the sun and the moon just means the light of truth shines by night and by day. The all-seeing eye just mean that at some stage you’ll have to answer for your actions”. Despite Freemasonry being long associated with affluent professions, McCreadie explains that this, although the case elsewhere, was not in Ireland: “In London it would have attracted some nobility, but over here they were mainly window dressing”. He continues: “ if I dare say without criticising sister constitutions, our boys are normal”.
The first room we come to in our investigation of the heart of Irish Freemasonry is known as the Mark Room. A rectangular room, with several golden framed portraits adorning the walls, wooden benches lining its sides and a wooden box-shaped altar standing at the room’s head, it’s impressive yet functional. “This is what an ordinary, bog-standard country lodge would look like… you can see that it’s quite bare”, McCreadie explains. Despite McCreadie perceiving the room to be “bare”, it is impossible to overlook the golden masonic triangles, the three wooden throne-like chairs on a raised platform and the wooden altar to the forefront of it all. The room encapsulates how much of wider society views the Masons: seemingly abnormal yet somehow normal. This perception is why the organisation has long been plagued with conspiracy theories and rumours. One such rumour McCreadie is quick to dismiss as “rubbish” is that of masons lying to protect each other if called to speak in court. “We don’t see any place for Freemasonry in the outside world” he says, debunking this theory. “We would take very seriously somebody that got into the dock and perjured himself. You know what, he would be thrown out”. McCreadie listens to the list of rumours surrounding Masonry, which I unearthed during extensive Googling, and he corrects each misconception. “Masonry was very much part of society. We used to advertise our meetings in the national papers”. McCreadie explains that, “it was only in latter years that we would have disappeared underground”.
McCreadie does, however, say that he can understand the widespread suspicion that surrounds the Freemasons: “I don’t blame people for saying these things because for years and years the masons spread this atmosphere of brimstone about themselves.” But in Irish masonic circles, recent years have brought a change in attitude: “I’ll put it to you this way: I’ve always felt that secrecy was bad news and I pushed the boat out fifteen years ago trying to open things up here. I could see the writing on the wall with things like church scandals”. He continues: “We’ve got nothing to hide. The only thing I can’t tell you is the secret handshake and the secret sign, but you can get them on the internet anyway”. However, a quick google to learn this secret handshake will not be enough to get you in. McCreadie smiles as he recalls an incident with a French journalist: “A journalist turned up to me one time. French guy, a very nice fella. He had everything off so well and we knew he had to be a fix. We had a great laugh about it, actually, and he said ‘how did you know I wasn’t a mason?’”. For McCreadie, it was easy. After years as a Mason, he knows one when he sees one.
“I’ve always felt that secrecy was bad news and I pushed the boat out fifteen years ago trying to open things up here. I could see the writing on the wall with things like church scandals”
He hurries us out of the room, exclaiming that he wanted to show us something “over the top”. He barely suppresses his excitement as we travel deeper into the physical world of Irish Masonry. “Your camera will love this”, he exclaims as we make our way along a wooden paneled corridor with intricate gold masonic-style lamps hovering over our heads. He pushes open the door to the Grand Chapter Room – a long room separated by stone-style pillars and three curtains dividing the room into sections. The overall impression is that of a striking, ancient, Egyptian temple. Egyptian busts stand out from the wall with menorahs balanced on their heads. The coving is Egyptian style and winds its way in and out of the curves and divides of the room. On a slightly raised platform, two sphinxes flank three ornate chairs under an Egyptian-style canopy. The look is that of something that would be more at home in an Indiana Jones movie than an antiquated Dublin building. This is where initiation, a process long-associated with secret and non-secret societies alike, takes place. Initiation is two hours long and men from taxi drivers to medics to shop owners have been invested here. He reflects fondly on one group who called themselves the black-hand gang because they all worked in Broadstone garage. The entire process he says is like “Harry Potter for men”. “The candidate comes in blindfolded and symbolically he has a halter around his neck which is taken off to symbolise that only the free can take an obligation”, he says. He also adds that they wear long robes, not unlike the ones I had mentally designed on my way in. “What he takes the obligation to do, really, is to keep the secrets of Freemasonry – which is a bit of a con-job because there’s none”, he maintains. “What it’s really about is: is he a man of honour and does he want to be a member of this group? Does he sincerely want to be a member of this group?” Despite there being varying degrees of Masonry, McCreadie says, “it’s about the same thing: knowing the difference between right and wrong”.
Members must be twenty-one to join the organisation. However, the vast majority of active members are young parents. McCreadie doesn’t feel that the lodge is the place for young people: “I would discourage people who are young, when I say young I mean under 28, from joining. I mean, they can join when they’re 21, but it’s far too young. They should be chasing women and getting drunk and failing exams”. He feels young people should be free – “youth is about freedom” – and that getting involved would tie them down in way that that is not age-appropriate. The door is closed on the Egyptian room and its time to enter the room deemed most impressive by visitors, the Grand Lodge room.
“They can join when they’re 21, but it’s far too young. They should be chasing women and getting drunk and failing exams”
The Grand Lodge room has soaring ceilings and a beautiful old-fashioned organ while rows of tiered seats line the walls. It’s hard to believe that there could possibly be enough masons to fill the seats in Irish society, yet the organisation boasts 1200 registered Irish members. What is truly astonishing is just how many different Irish pies the masons seem to have their fingers in. They have been involved in all areas of Irish life: education, science, business – the list is endless.
McCreadie tells me they were the first civic body to educate girls: “We decided way back then, in the 1700s, when girls didn’t matter, that, if a girl lost her father, she was in a very sticky situation and at least if she had a modest education she would be in a position to get some sort of a job”. That school is now the Bewleys Hotel in Ballsbridge. They also opened Richview school for boys in Clonskeagh, but not until much later. McCreadie explains that this was because “we felt boys would be able to get apprenticeship work from their uncle”. This school is now the architecture building in UCD. It does indeed seem the group are everywhere, even within Trinity’s walls. The Parsons building, which houses the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, is named after a Mason descendent: “He invented the Parson’s turbine. They have a telescope down in Birr. They were a very very scientifically accomplished family.”
Many organisations have their roots in Masonry. Alcoholics Anonymous was started by masons, and organisations like the Ku Klux Klan, American fraternities and even the Boy Scouts are based on them. With such involvement in both Dublin and, indeed, Irish life, it seems to follow that topics for Masonic discussion would include political issues. The question hadn’t even entirely left my mouth before McCreadie cuts in: “Absolutely not!” He explains that attempts to discuss politics and chances are likely to end up with you sent packing: “You must be joking? That’s completely forbidden, absolutely forbidden. Politics, religion is off the menu – you could be thrown out for trying to discuss it”.
Within the Masons themselves, they reflect attitudes in the wider Irish community, seen most recently in a controversy over sexuality. “There was a challenge put up by some older members about a certain guy who’s a well-known artist who happens to be gay. When they asked him if he had told his family about joining the Masonic order he said he had told his husband”. This came as a surprise for the elders who McCreadie says “nearly had a heart attack”. He explains that it was decided to go ahead with the investiture seen as they felt he was a man of repute and honour – the characteristics needed to be a Mason – and that sexuality should never come into it. “A man free born without name or moral defect living in good repute among his friends and neighbours” is what is required, says McCreadie: “It’s a matter of repute and that doesn’t say anything about gender orientation”. While he may be using the wrong terminology, it’s clear that they are accepting. He continues: “That’s the purpose of Freemasonry. It’s about fraternity, and fraternity is inclusive. It doesn’t say I’m going to regard you as my brother because I like you – it’s about saying I regard you as my brother even though I don’t like you.”
“He can just sit there and absorb something that’s very familiar, like a comfort blanket, and then go down and have a supper with a crowd of people to whom he has no permanent commitment”
The Knight Templar Preceptory room is in darkness when we enter but, with a flick of the switch, a room, like something from a fantasy quest game, appears before us. With stained glass windows, shields, and wooden thrones, the place looks like a cross between a medieval church and castle designed by an overly enthusiastic Nintendo games programmer. It takes a few seconds to fully take in the altar at the top of the room, which features a cross flanked by ornate candles and a depiction of what I assume to be the lamb of God. It is important to note here that Masons do not discriminate on members relating to religion. Rather, they must believe in some supreme being. Who exactly that supreme being is isn’t an issue. The doors to the room are wooden, the top half smoothly rounding into a point, like what you would see in a castle. It seems like a lavishly funded game of make-believe or a bizarre film set of some American frat ritual scene in a Hollywood production. McCreadie distances his group from the initiation rituals of the American fraternities that are also based on masonry: “that’s just boys making themselves feel important and taking their clothes off in private in front of each other. We don’t go in for that”. I, however, still can’t grasp exactly what they do go in for in terms of their role among the male Irish population. McCreadie attempts to explain it further: “Let’s take, for example, a fella who works in IT or something like that, where his phone is ringing night, noon and morning. He can come in here, throw the phone in his coat pocket, go up to a masonic meeting. If he’s not an officer, he doesn’t have to do anything. He can just sit there and absorb something that’s very familiar, like a comfort blanket, and then go down and have a supper with a crowd of people to whom he has no permanent commitment”. He explains dinner is usually chicken and chips, maybe with a glass of wine, and all the men leave at eleven.
The following room, Prince Masons’ Room, once more seems to exalt the historic routes of the masonic movement. Wooden armed seats with crimson cushions matching the plush carpet snake around the perimeter. Personal crests are arranged in rows above them while flags of varying colours extend out over each chair from colourful ornate wooden canopies and, once more, an altar and wooden throne are arranged at the head of the room. It has to be said: above all else, being a member looks like great fun. I’m seriously tempted, as my own dreams of the existence of a Potter-like world are rekindled. I’d be ready to pay my membership, but I won’t be joining. Although there are female Freemasons in other parts of the world, they are a small minority, and the Dublin lodge does not take in female members. “The exclusion of women in Freemasonry came in about 1730, not from Ireland, but from a guy called Andrews over in England who wrote a new book of constitutions and because Dublin and London were the ying and yang, Dublin accepted this book of constitutions and replaced its own and this was the first one that specifically excluded women”.
“Men will sit quite happily and discuss bye laws and procedure and ponce around with poles and admire each other or usually themselves where as women have no time for that”
He continues, explaining the perceived need for the separation of the sexes, “men will sit quite happily and discuss bye laws and procedure and ponce around with poles and admire each other or usually themselves where as women have no time for that. I mean it’s hilarious that men will honk away about women refurbishing themselves but young guys in particular and indeed older fellas are the greatest peacocks of the lot”. They are however cautious of the type of man they allow to enter through their doors and into their circle of trust: “you will get people who have perhaps not achieved all they would have liked to achieve in real life who would come in here and start medal collecting in freemasonry and they’re a menace”.
So what is the aim of this organisation in 21st century Dublin? “We bring them together purely for, lets say, social moral purposes. In other words they support each other because they believe each other to be good men” They also seem to have gone down another more unusual route in terms of public promotion. They have had Frankenstein nights, Harry Potter nights and are even aiming to get more involved in the community by encouraging lodges to rent out their premises to allow for a local area to have a nursery centre. The whole experience has been like entering the fun house at a carnival. Each room is more outrageous than the last and there is a similar sensation of unease with each passing oddity. McCreadie walks us to the door on our way out – encouraging questions and further photos if we wish. As we step back onto the path outside, we glance back, noticing now, that the building is in fact vastly different from the others on the same street. Perhaps this ancient boy’s club is simply “group therapy for men” or perhaps there is more behind its striking facade.