Turtle Bunbury

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The Freemasons’ Hall, Dublin

When the Grand Lodge of the Ancient, Free and Accepted Freemasons of Ireland moved into its new Dublin premises on Molesworth Street in 1869, there must have been a concerted effort amongst the brethren to distance themselves from the order’s first and rather peculiar Grand Master.

This handsome new city centre headquarters may have been built on the site of the very house where the Earl of Rosse had died 130 years earlier, but that didn’t necessarily mean one had to talk about the man.

Lord Rosse was installed as Grand Master at a meeting that took place at The Yellow Lion, an inn on Dublin’s Werburgh Street, on 24th June 1725. The masons who elected him had assembled in full regalia, proceeding from the pub across the Liffey via Essex Bridge before finishing up at the King’s Inn, where the Four Courts stand today.

Lord Rosse journeyed ‘in a Fine Chariot, it being a rainy day’. He was undoubtedly one of Georgian Ireland’s more colourful characters. Handsome, witty and exceptionally rich, his election as Grand Master continues to baffle Freemasons to this day because the ‘humour and frolics’ for which this ‘consummate profligate’ was famed are not ideals that Freemasons tend to applaud.

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Above: The Grand Lodge Room is a grandiose, windowless Corinthian hall that runs the entire length of the building. Life-sized
portraits of former Grand Masters, surmounted by their coronets, hang on bays between columns, while sepia cartoon murals by
Edward Gibson fill the lunettes above them. Also here is a gilt-edge portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who
visited the hall in 1871 when he was made a Grand Patron of Irish Freemasonry. The ceremonial chair, carved in Edinburgh, has a
coronet and lion’s head on the arms. The chequered carpet represent darkness and light – through their membership they go from
the darkness into the light – and incorporates the Masonic square and compass into the border.

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Above: The Royal Arch Chapter Room is in the Egyptian style and lit by Jewish gasolier candelabras that spring out from Egyptian
heads. This curious mixture underlines Masonic empathy for the priestly caste, technical powers and ancient mysteries of Egypt. It
probably also derives from the craze for Egyptology in the 1860s when the Freemason’s Hall was built. Life-sized sphinxes flank
the ceremonial chair beneath an exotically coloured Egyptian baldacchino canopy, giving the room a Hollywood meets Monty
Python ambience. In Masonic lore, twin pillars symbolize the entrance to the Temple of Solomon, the ultimate repository for
strength and wisdom.

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Above: The Knights Templar Room is a gabled hall, designed to look like a medieval chapel, and is illuminated by Gothic stained
heraldic glass windows. The design was inspired by the Knights Templar of the 12th and 13th century, icons of Christian chivalry,
who were adopted as a branch of the Freemasons in the 18th century. The mystical associations of these crusading knights with
Solomon’s temple strongly appealed to the young bucks of Georgian Dublin. The room is lined with carved wooden stalls, while a
timber-panelled roof springs from knight-head corbels. The room also features a monochrome portrait of the Duke of Connaught,
a son of Queen Victoria, who was commander in chief of the British army in Ireland, as well as the Most Excellent and Supreme
Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Most excellent, Garth.

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Above: The Prince Masons’ Chapter Room is a large, dark-panelled Tudor-Gothic hall where chapters of Prince Masons, the 18th
degree of Freemasonry, meet. The room is lined with canopied stalls, based on the choir stalls at St. Patrick’s Cathedral,
surmounted by armorial banners incorporating coat of arms of various 19th century members such as Viscount Powerscourt.

(Photos: Chris Bacon)

Freemasonry is all about moderation and obedience to both the moral and civic law. Lord Rosse, on the other hand, was a champion of excess, drunkenness, debauchery and utter disregard for social convention.

Even Dr Crawley, the great Masonic historian, conceded that ‘His Lordship’s idea of morals were inverted, and his skill shone most in the management of the small-sword and the dice-box.’

But Lord Rosse was clearly persuasive and he was re-elected Grand Master in 1730. He stepped down the following year but cemented his mischievous credentials in 1735 when he founded the Hell Fire Club, a notorious Satanically-inclined ‘drinking, gambling and wenching’ society for young, thrill-seeking Protestant rakes.

One can see why the Freemasons baulked. Nonetheless, Lord Rosse’s portrait hangs in the museum of the wonderful Freemasons' Hall on Molesworth Street which opens its hallowed doors to public viewing this week as part of Heritage Week (August 2012).

The idea that anyone can wander freely through the Freemason’s Hall runs completely contrary to what most people think they know of Freemasonry.

Contrary to the desires of the brethren themselves, the order has become as synonymous with secrecy as Swiss bankers and the Mafia’s Omertà code.

And when an organization gets a reputation for secrecy, the conspiracy theories come fast and furious. How come one in three US Presidents has been a Freemason? Are they planning to establish a New World Order with a single totalitarian government? Given that they conduct certain meetings dressed in capes and hoods, is that not a little bit KKK? What’s with all the Egyptian columns and the all-seeing eye symbols? And what’s the deal with that secret handshake?

Throw in all the furore that surrounded Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and, by 2005, even the brethren themselves must have wondered whether they weren’t part of some surreal Knights Templar dream-world.

The truth is, these days at any rate, Freemasons are normal people with normal ambitions leading normal lives.

We're not a secret society, they insist. We're simply a society with secrets.

Oh yes, and they’re all men over the age of 21. Ireland is still Y-chromosome territory for Masons although there are women’s branches in other parts of the world. The man-only club faced one of its stiffest challenges in 1712 when Elizabeth St Ledger, the daughter of Lord Doneraile, was rumbled eavesdropping on a meeting from behind a curtain. She was duly initiated and is hailed as one of the few woman in the world ever to have become a members.

There are approximately 20,000 Masons in Ireland today (August 2012), down from a peak of 55,000 in the 1950s. Most see it as a social club where they develop friendships and enjoy a sense of belonging and, yes, maybe boost their careers along the way. So, no different to any other club then, except that its founding members had a penchant for Egyptology, symbolism and mystical knights that inevitably set conspirational tongues wagging.

Masons abide by a moral code that they hope will improve their outlook on life and the way they behave.

And, of primary concern, they have a practical, altruistic purpose, raising funds for various charities – both Masonic and non Masonic – such as the Victoria Jubilee Fund (for widows of members), the Welfare Fund (for members and their dependents in economic distress), the long-established Grand Lodge Charity Fund (for any members or their families who are in a state of emergency) and Educational Funds (for children of members). They also sponsor a popular Young Musician of the Year competition.

They do sometimes wear aprons, in honour of the traditional leather garments that stonemasons wore to protect themselves in times past.

And there is a secret handshake, which is how members prove they are members, particularly when visiting any of the 574 Lodges in Ireland.

That aside, the biggest secret are the various oaths taken by members as they progress through each level of Freemasonry. They essentially swear neither to reveal the identities or details of their fellow brethren, nor to impart the various modes of recognition.

A search on the internet implies that those who break this vow of secrecy agree that it’s fair enough to ‘have my throat cut across, my tongue torn out by the roots, and my body buried in the rough sands of the sea at low-water mark’.


One colourful form of 19th century Masonic salutation was called the 'Fire of Eleven' and involved plunging "heavy set" tankards into a bowl of punch before toasting one another "3 times 3" (ie: 9 fires) with hands and shoulders set in a particular position. They then toasted the monarch of the day (presumably it would now be the President) and ‘the Ancient Craft’, which makes up the 'Fire of 11'. They concluded by banging their gavels on the table and shouting ‘Zay’ nine times. Easy when you know how. The fire symbolized the elements and eleven is a revered number in Masonic symbolism which, knocking Judas Iscariot out of the picture, symbolizes the eleven true apostles of Christ.

Membership of the order is not a secret but some brethren are intensely private. Others are perfectly happy to discuss it all. The museum on Molesworth Street is open all year round, and the hall is available for guided tours.

The Grand Lodge has jurisdiction over the thirteen Provincial Grand Lodges, which oversee all the Freemasons in Ireland, as well as another twelve provinces worldwide including Bermuda, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. In times past, the individual lodges generally met at inns, taverns and coffee houses, while the Grand Lodge tended to assemble in civic and guild buildings in Dublin.

The senior figure in the order is presently George Dunlop, the Right Worshipful Grand Master.

The concept of Freemasonry rose out of the medieval guilds. The earliest evidence of Masonic activity in Ireland is believed to be a brass square recovered from the foundations of Baal’s Bridge in Limerick which is dated 1507 and inscribed with the phrase, "I will strive to live with love & care, upon the level and by the square.” While the relatively modern English is notable, the bridge under which it was found had existed since at least 1558. If this is genuine, it is certainly the oldest Masonic artefact in Ireland, and one of the oldest in the world.

There are records at Trinity College Dublin suggesting Masonic meetings as far back as 1688.

Lord Rosse’s installation in 1725 is taken as the founding year of the Grand Lodge, which makes it the second most senior Grand Lodge in the world, and the oldest to have enjoyed an unbroken existence. [i]

Despite, or perhaps because of, a ban imposed by Pope Clement XII in 1738, freemasonry thrived in the mid-18th century. In 1783, the first Volunteer Lodge was formed as Lodge 620, and continues to exist to this day.

In 1806, they rented Tailor’s Hall. Five years later, they took the splendid Assembly Rooms on South William Street – the soon to be HQ of the Irish Georgian Society – where they were based for the final years of the Napoleonic Wars. It was here that Daniel O’Connell defended the Masons in 1814 as a philanthropic order ‘unconfined by sect, colour or religion’. He was obliged to resign his membership in 1826 when Pope Leo XII issued a papal bull threatening to excommunicate any Catholics who continued to be members.

In 1822, they leased 19 Dawson Street, now home of the Royal Irish Academy. By 1829, they were renting a large room in Mr. Inglis’s tavern on D’Olier Street. And from there they went to the Commercial Buildings on Dame Street.

In 1866, the order finally secured a permanent base on Molesworth Street, a stone’s throw from Leinster House, on the very site where their first Grand Master, Lord Rosse, had his townhouse.

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Above: The organ was made by Telford & Telford on St. Stephen’s Green in the late
1860s and paid for the 3rd Duke of Leinster. The Duke was the longest serving of the
42 Grand Masters. Installed in 1813 aged 22, he retained the office for a staggering
61 years until his death in 1874. Other Grand Masters included the Duke of Abercorn
and the Earls of Donoughmore, Charleville and Mornington, while the Grand Wardens
included the 2nd Lord Rathdonnell.

(Photo: Chris Bacon)

The fabulous purpose-built building was the result of an architectural competition won by Edward Holmes of Birmingham. The construction was paid for by a voluntary tax levied by the Dublin Masons on themselves.

Holmes employed three architectural orders on the façade – Doric on the ground floor, then Ionic and Corinthian on the upper levels. The all-seeing eye, symbolic of God, was enshrined in the pediment, alongside the Masonic square and compass.

The interiors comprise a series of elaborately decorated rooms to create a dazzling, mysterious Pratchett-meets-Python world of life-sized sphinxes, ceremonial chairs, chequered carpets, multi-coloured Egyptian canopies, dark-stained choir stalls, medieval banners and coats of arms. The jewel of the Freemason’s Hall is arguably its museum which is stuffed with treasures – aprons, trowels, medals, portraits, letters, buckles, jugs, crockery – adorned with the mysterious symbolism of masonry such as a skull and bones for mortality, the ark for hope and a cockerel for the resurrection.

For more on how to access the Freemasons’ Hall, please contact Rebecca Hayes, 17 Molesworth Street Dublin 2. archive@freemason.ie or (01) 6761337.

For more on Heritage Week, visit www.heritageweek.ie

With thanks to Rebecca Hayes and Michelle Tritschler.

Further Notes

Well known Masons include Archibald Hamilton Rowan, Daniel O’Connell, Isaac Butt, Anthony Trollope, Dr. Robert Graves and Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar).

Each lodge meets once a month, except July and August, while the Grand Lodge convenes four times a year. Members pay c. €120 per year in dues.