Deconstructing a few secrets of the Freemasons
Freemasonry is often perceived as an elite wielding malign influence but its spokesman in Ireland say it’s about good works, not networking
In the Grand Lodge Room of Freemasons’ Hall, a stately Victorian building on Dublin’s Molesworth Street, the scene is set for an initiation ceremony. In a few hours, a blindfolded candidate wearing a halter around his neck will kneel on a blue pillow – one of three steps representing the first degrees of “The Craft” – before his choice of scripture.
The “Entered Apprentice” will then take an oath surrounded by men in regalia, half of them brandishing swords, half extending their right hand in friendship. Each of these degrees instils a basic moral lesson, each ritual dramatises the candidate’s personal growth.
“It’s nursery-school simple,” says Morgan McCreadie, assistant to the grand secretary of the Irish Freemasons. “There’s no mysterious meaning. They’re not magic or anything like that. No, we don’t eat babies and, no, we don’t kill anybody.”
Freemasons aren’t known for divulging details or dispelling myths. For 300 years, the order has shrouded itself in mystery, infamous for its use of passwords and secret handshakes. Despite being a fraternal organisation that seeks to improve men and thereby the society around them, Freemasonry is often perceived as an elite circle wielding a malign influence.
“A lot of Freemasons would be like boys in the corner of the school playground,” says McCreadie. “‘We’re not lettin’ you into our club!’ But that secrecy can play against you because if people can’t find out the truth, if they suspect you’re hiding something, they’ll make up something horrible.”
McCreadie, 56, works full-time for the governing body that presides over Ireland’s 25,000 Freemasons. Sporting a neatly trimmed white moustache, he repeatedly emphasises that he’s neither a publicist nor an apologist for the order. Instead McCreadie prefers to “tell it like it is”, which is exactly what he did upon learning that Grand Lodge once commissioned a survey to gauge public opinion.
“I said, ‘About a third have absolutely no interest. A third are fascinated because it has all sorts of connotations. The other third think you’re a shower of eejits. It doesn’t take a marketing firm to tell you that.’”
To apply, you must be over 21 and believe in the existence of a supreme being. But you also have to ask. Freemasons’ Hall received 147 expressions of interest last year, which translated into about 20 new members. Candidates are stalled for up to a year in order to assess their character and clarify any misconceptions.
“A lot of them lose interest when their curiosity has been satisfied about what we do and what we don’t do. No, we don’t have the Holy Grail and, yes, we do have ceremonies. We tell them all about it, which we wouldn’t have done in the past, and they say, ‘Oh. Is that all?’”
When a brother recently suggested recruiting members, McCreadie firmly insisted that the excellence of the order should speak for itself.
Recalling this, his raised voice echoes through the hall while reciting the conditions for entering a masonic lodge: that you must come of your own free will, uninfluenced by solicitations and unbiased by suspect motives.
In the UK, masonic lodges belonging exclusively to judges and police officers have drawn allegations of corruption, tarnishing the order’s image. McCreadie feels it’s inevitable that abuses would arise in those circumstances and for that reason it’s forbidden for an Irish lodge to comprise only one profession.
Over here, he says, it’s difficult enough just to find commonality among members, who are forbidden from discussing politics or religion. A list of expulsions is published annually.
Nevertheless, some approach the organisation hoping to boost their career through networking and favouritism. “We would tell them quite honestly: if you want to get something out of it, you’re mad. Elsewhere, like the States, you might get more networking and all that but it just doesn’t work that way here.”
Of the nearly 1,400 registered Freemasons across Dublin’s 35 lodges, McCreadie speculates that the majority of those with jobs are working-class men struggling to make a living. This may be hard to reconcile with a list of Freemasonry’s famous brethren. Aside from 14 US presidents and five British monarchs, the more notable names include Mozart, Winston Churchill, John Wayne, J Edgar Hoover and, for a time, Daniel O’Connell.
McCreadie suspects that certain figures joined every club available while on the ascent and never returned once they were successful. Hearing brethren dropping names only embarrasses him. “I mean, what are they trying to justify? I told somebody very publicly: ‘I wouldn’t want to be associated with a chain gang like that!’ I think it’s irrelevant and it demeans the order.”
The building’s crimson staircase leads to several ornate meeting rooms of different architectural styles, some of which are used by invite-only Masonic branches that one can eventually advance to. Women are not admitted. McCreadie believes this policy stems from an era of chauvinism, when men “refused to accept the intellectual capacity, and therefore the power, of women”. Instead he refers interested parties to the unaffiliated Order of Women Freemasons, who have an office in Northern Ireland. (The Grand Masonic Orient of Ireland, an unaffiliated body that practises continental-style liberal Freemasonry, also recognises women.)
Though the policies of the masonic order and its offshoots vary throughout the world, the association with conspiracy theories is all-pervasive. Even in Freemasons’ Hall, Dan Brown novels can be seen sitting alongside a copy of Cracking The Da Vinci Code .
McCreadie attributes Freemasonry’s starring role in such narratives to its “magpie” approach in adopting symbols (like the Eye of Providence), its former “no comment” policy and its links with the original Bavarian Illuminati, an 18th-century society that opposed superstition and inequality.
“We’re pretty good for a conspiracy theory,” he says. “It’s got a mysterious history associated with senior political figures like Frederick the Great, Bonnie Prince Charlie, some of the kings of France and so on. If you tie that in with religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, which has been secretive enough in itself, all you need is the thread of a story with a timeline rather than facts and you’ve got a bloody rattlin’ yarn. But intelligent people don’t take that sort of thing seriously.”
According to Prof James Kelly, head of history at St. Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, hostility towards Freemasonry dates back to its ties with revolution. Despite being one of the few clubs to welcome Catholics in 18th-century Ireland, it became forbidden by the Catholic Church and marginalised by mistrust in a sectarian landscape.
“As much as you can find that’s puzzling about them,” Kelly says, “they strike me as a grossly misrepresented organisation whose charitable endeavours for schools and others have performed a public role of some consequence.”
Asked what Freemasonry means to him, McCreadie is uncertain. He enjoys mixing with “men of good will” from various backgrounds, but when he once posed that same question to a meeting of brethren, he concluded from their silence that the appeal is entirely subjective.
“I’ve been asked again and again if Freemasonry improves people. I don’t believe it does. But I do believe that the people who come to Freemasonry want to improve themselves. They already have strong opinions about society or moral values. Freemasonry is just a representation of that.”