Local brotherhood – An Irishman’s Diary on the freemasonry controversy in 1920s Ireland
Commonly identified with unionist and imperialist sentiment, freemasonry quickly became a target of abuse in independent Ireland.
As the 1920s progressed, opponents claimed that freemasons exercised a disproportionate influence upon Irish cultural, political, and economic institutions. In addition to misgivings about masonic nepotism or “graft”, antagonists also railed against the suspected anti-national and irreligious leanings of lodge members.
Irish freemasons were predominantly Protestant, and affiliated to the Anglo-American masonic fraternity. From a Catholic perspective, however, the local brotherhood resembled a bastion of sectarianism, while it also struggled to disentangle itself from continental freemasonry, which had been roundly condemned by the leadership of the Catholic Church.
At the time, the Holy See was embroiled in a long-running conflict with the Grand Orient, a powerful masonic rite anchored in France and the Mediterranean region.
Unlike Anglo-American freemasonry, the continentals preached aggressive secularism; accordingly, when confronted by the widespread anti-clericalism of fin de siècle Europe, successive popes pointed accusing fingers at their “atheistic” masonic enemies.
While the Vatican fretted about the reach of the Grand Orient, hostile Irish voices accused indigenous freemasons of conspiring against the social and political values of their homeland.
Violent and threatening language framed the discourse. The widely read Catholic Bulletin, for instance, described Ireland’s freemasons as “a naked stripping gang of alien adventurers” who “rolled like lava over this fair land”.
As a self-defence measure, roared a writer, the state should thus “close down by right of its authority every secret lodge in this country of these secret geometric enemies, or itself suffer extermination”.
Threats like this cast a shadow over an important masonic event which took place in 1925.
In that year, emissaries from the Grand Lodges of the English-speaking world gathered in Dublin to commemorate the bicentenary of freemasonry’s introduction to Ireland.
Unnerved by the growing criticism, the festival organisers distanced themselves from their European brethren.
Addressing a packed St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Anglican primate of All Ireland, Dr Charles D’Arcy, protested that no common ties linked the Irish rites and the “so-called freemasonry” of the Grand Orient.
Emphasising the Christian ethos of the Irish fraternity, D’Arcy pleaded for toleration, while upholding freemasons as patriots loyal to the Irish constitution.
Catholic firebrands were distinctly unimpressed. Dismissing the 1925 festival as false propaganda, a vocal cadre of priests redoubled their efforts to expose masonic intriguers assumed to be nesting in the higher reaches of Irish civil and commercial society.
The self-styled inquisitors included Fr Edward J Cahill, an influential social theorist and friend to de Valera; Fr Denis Fahey, who went on the found Maria Duce (an anti-Semitic movement active in post-war Ireland); and Fr Eugene Coyle, an especially neurotic member of the Fianna Fáil National Executive.
Together, these clerics worked assiduously to disclose Jewish-masonic-communist conspiracies.
Events in faraway Mexico featured heavily in their writings.
In the late 1920s, the Cristero War was at its height. This civil conflict began as a popular revolt against the irreligious measures of a socialist Mexican state. Involving brutality and terrorism on both sides, it ultimately claimed some 90,000 lives.
The Catholic Church in Mexico was the great loser from the conflict, with suppression, expulsion, and assassination destroying the national priesthood, while Catholic education was eliminated and church assets were expropriated.
For many Irish Catholics, therefore, Mexico’s president Plutarco Elías Calles was the most infamous statesman of his day.
As a Marxist, atheist and freemason, Calles, who received a medal of merit from bigoted US freemasons in 1926, offended dominant Irish opinion in every way.
Moreover, the insensitive behaviour of the Americans inflamed the debate about freemasonry in Ireland, for the US lodges had been well represented at the 1925 bicentenary celebrations in Dublin.
In 1927, meanwhile, Irish freemasons travelled to Mexico City to attend an International Masonic Convention, a further “provocation” that incensed those intent upon criminalising the Irish lodges.
Regardless of the noise they generated, the conspiracy theorists actually exercised little control over the Irish political elite.
Certainly, Coyle was not a minority of one within Fianna Fáil, while Cumann na nGaedheal also harboured voices that complained of “anti-national” elements in the Civil Service.
Even so, neither party had an appetite for persecutions grounded in prejudice and fantasy.
For this reason, Ireland did not follow the autocratic example set by fascist Italy, which crushed the Grand Orient in 1925.
This restraint demonstrated the limits of radical Catholicism in independent Ireland, where legislators felt disinclined to suppress a lawful society like freemasonry simply because it harboured sentiments other than respect for the theocratic ideals voiced by its loudest critics.