Hell, it seems has no fury like the Freemasons scorned. Piqued by an article in the Guardian newspaper which resurrected old tropes about Freemasons seeking access and influence in the corridors of power, the United Grand Lodge of England responded the old-fashioned way.
It could have done so through social media channels and its website – mediums that are immediate and cost nothing – but the English Freemasons had other ideas. They took out full-page advertisements in three quality British daily papers: the Daily Telegraph, the London Times and the Guardian.
"Enough is enough," the advertisement declared. In an open letter to the British public, the Freemasons' chief executive Dr David Staples took issue with the Guardian report, which had stated that there were two secret lodges operating in Westminster. One included MPs, the other political journalists.
“The United Grand Lodge of England believes that the ongoing gross misrepresentation of its 200,000 plus members is discrimination. Pure and simple,” he wrote. “Our members shouldn’t have to feel undeservedly stigmatised. No other organisation would stand for this, and nor shall we. I have written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make this case.”
'How much is an advertisement in The Irish Times?' he asks. 'If we did that, the membership would kill us for spending so much money'
He signed off with an invitation to the public to attend events and find out what the Freemasons are really about.
The advertisement also pointed out that the Freemasons raised €33 million for charitable causes in Britain every year.
The text of the advertisement was clear. The subtext suggests an organisation that is prepared to pay £100,000 to vindicate its name in national newspapers is not to be trifled with. Don’t mess with the Freemasons.
Dr Staples's counterpart in Ireland, Douglas Grey, is incredulous that the English Freemasons went to such lengths. "How much is an advertisement in The Irish Times?" he asks. "If we did that, the membership would kill us for spending so much money."
The Irish lodge stands “sovereign and supreme”, he says, although all masonic bodies are guided by the same basic precepts.
Home for the Irish Freemasons is the Grand Lodge on Molesworth Street, Dublin 2. This magnificent Victorian building, a stone’s throw from Leinster House, is part gentlemen’s club and part temple. Guests are ushered into the library where coffee is served and glass cases filled with books about the proceedings of the Irish Freemasons reach the ceiling. There are stained glass windows and light shades fashioned in the shape of the square and compass; the symbols of freemasonry.
Grey has been the Grand Master of the Irish Freemasons for the past three years. Prior to that he was deputy grand master for eight years.
There are 22,000 Freemasons in Ireland, the majority in the North. Some associate the Freemasons with the Orange Order. They share the same terminology such as the concept of “lodges”, “worshipful masters” and “brethren”, but Grey points out that the Freemasons existed before the Orange Order, and the order borrowed their terminology, not the other way around.
Women cannot join. 'It's a brotherhood,' he points out
The Freemasons are open to men over the age of 21 who are of “good character” and who believe in a supreme being. This, he says, means Jews, Hindus and Muslims can join. By way of illustration he takes me to the Grand Hall on the upper floor of the building in Molesworth Street. This imposing chamber, with its chequered floor and life-size portraits of former grand masters, is like a medieval throne room where an all-powerful monarch might preside.
The centrepiece is a table on which is placed a Bible, a Koran, the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu sacred book.
“We are an organisation that is trying to make good men better,” he explains. “Masonry is definitely not a religion. It teaches us moral lessons and help us be more moral people.”
Women cannot join. “It’s a brotherhood,” he points out. “Currently there is no demand coming to us [for women to join]”.
The Freemasons’ chief role in Ireland is in fundraising. The Irish Freemasons raise €2 million every year for charity. Seventy per cent of that goes to members in need, the rest to non-masonic causes.
It has raised six-figure sums for organisations such as the Samaritans, the LauraLynn foundation and Belfast hospice.
Grey pulls a teddy bear down from the shelf by way of illustration of their charity work. Every young child who visits an accident and emergency department gets a teddy bear through their TLC (Teddies for Loving Care) programme, which began in 2001.
If you go to any good library you will find anything that you might want to know about us
The last thing most people expect the Freemasons to be is cuddly. Grey says many people presume the Freemasons are a secret organisation and therefore up to no good.
“We are not a secret organisation,” he says emphatically. “The time and dates of our meetings are published. Our accounts are published. We are fully compliant with the charity commissions, North and South.
“When I joined the order first the members would be quite secretive about their membership because of the historical fact that the Catholic Church was against us. Now that is not the case.”
Members are free to declare their membership if they see fit, but the lodge will not volunteer that information on their behalf.
And what of the famous Freemason handshake? He declines to show me what it is, but says all the rituals can be found on the internet without much trouble. “If you go to any good library you will find anything that you might want to know about us,” he says.
“The reports about us are generally unfounded because people don’t know the full facts, and they haven’t bothered to find out the full facts.”