Slice of Masonic history unearthed in Co Meath auction

Silver trowel found in a box of bric-a-brac reveals symbols of the brotherhood

Silver Freemason’s trowel inscribed ‘Lodge 44 in Las Vegas Nevada’ is part of the Matthew’s sale, €60-€90

Silver Freemason’s trowel inscribed ‘Lodge 44 in Las Vegas Nevada’ is part of the Matthew’s sale, €60-€90

 

A tiny silver Freemason’s trowel is one of the lots in Matthew’s sale in Kells, Co Meath, this weekend. Listed as “antique”, the trowel arrived to the auction rooms in a box of bric-a-brac and is seeking €60-€90.

Freemasonry, one of the oldest fraternities in the world, is known for its symbolism and rituals. At times its shroud of secrecy has attracted negative attention, with more questions raised than explanations given about its exact purpose.

Tales of secret handshakes and rituals with an exposed breast, and long citations during initiation have fuelled the suspicion about the order, often purported to be a “jobs for the boys” society, though its contribution to charities is well documented.

No one actually knows when the brotherhood was formed but it is said that it originates from a Stonemasons Guild in the Middle Ages.

With past members including Oscar Wilde, Mozart and Winston Churchill, and now an estimated two million members across the world, Ireland has played a significant part in Masonic history with an estimated 25,000 members.

The first lodge in the UK dates from the early 1700s but when a bridge in Limerick was being rebuilt in 1830, a brass square dated 1507 was found buried in the foundations, making it the oldest known Masonic artefact in the world. It bears the inscription “I will strive with love and care upon the level and by the square” in testament to Masonic traditions on which the brotherhood is based.

The brass square, which is now at the Limerick Lodge of the order, predates the establishment of freemasonry in Ireland and the UK by more than 200 years, and to this day remains a mystery.

First woman

Cork too played its part in the history of freemasonry, when in or about 1712, Elizabeth St Leger became the first woman Freemason in the world. Legend has it that she was asleep in a room adjacent to a meeting being held at the home of her father, viscount of Doneraile. It was decided that as she had overheard the rite, she should be initiated into the society.

A plaque at St Finbarre’s Cathedral was erected by the order in her honour, to Lady Freemason, as she is now known throughout the world. There are lodges throughout the world now who admit women to what has been primarily a men’s club for centuries.

The trowel listed in the Matthew’s sale in inscribed “Lodge 44 Las Vegas Nevada” with some Masonic symbols. The trowel itself was “to spread the cement of brotherly love and affection” according to an explanation of Masonic symbolism where historically the trowel was the principal tool of master stone masons.

While the Statue of Liberty in New York is said to have Masonic links, there remain many conspiracy theories about the order, but one fact is true; under Adolf Hitler, who banned the order, between 80,000 and 200,000 members are reported to have been executed by the Nazi regime.

It is quite incredible that Limerick should hold the oldest known Masonic artefact in the world, and that a Cork woman was the first woman member. As to the history of the little trowel at the auction in Kells, that too remains a mystery. 

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