Freemasonry helps to make good men better

1001524_403555076420508_1338864308_aViewed by some as a mysterious, men-only organisation, MARIA ROLSTON talks to Cork historian Dr David Butler about what it means to be a Freemason in today’s society. 

It’s one of the oldest fraternities in the world and despite being shrouded in mystery for centuries due to its use of secret signs and symbols, the Freemasons is open to “all good men”, according to Dr David Butler.

Dr Butler, a UCC historian and the Provincial Grand Librarian and Archivist for the Munster Freemasons, is a member of one of the eight city lodges that meet in the Masonic Hall on Tuckey Street.

He says the basis of Freemasonry is ‘the lodge’ which, by definition, is a group of men meeting together. Membership is open to any man over the age of 21 who doesn’t have a criminal conviction.

Reasons for Freemason membership are usually threefold — social, historical and charitable — and despite its reputation for elitism, Dr Butler says it is essentially a social organisation concerned with moral values.

“With the advent of the internet, membership became more open and transparent but potential members still have to ask to join the Freemasons and go through an application process.

“Membership of the Freemasons has never been closed — it was, and still can be, cautious. 

“Historically, Irish people have always kept their cards close to their chest because Ireland has always been such a revolutionary society but there are certain traditional signs and symbols that we still use within Freemasonry that probably add to the mystique of the society,” he said.

Freemasons evolved from the medieval guild of stonemasons and have been in existence in Scotland since the early 1500s, applying the traditions, practices and high standards of stonemasons to personal morals. 

The earliest records of Freemasons in Cork go back to 1725 and the eight city lodges have been meeting in the Masonic Hall on Tuckey Street — built in the late 1760s as the Cork City Assembly Room — since 1926.

To become a Freemason, potential members have to go through a rigorous process, first being proposed and then seconded by an existing member. Names of potential members are then circulated to all lodges in the province to ensure applicants haven’t already attempted to join another lodge and failed, and to make sure there is nothing untoward known about the applicant’s character.

On approval, members have to agree to uphold the regulations of the State and to always put their family and business before membership of the Freemasons.

Each lodge meets once a month and the eight city lodges and six lodges of Cork county are governed under the umbrella body of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster.

Dr Butler says it is simply a traditional, non-religious, men’s society that has retained its moral ethos and ceremonial procedures over the eras.

“Most people join the Freemasons for social reasons because you get to meet people outside your own age group, your own geographical location and your own economic and professional background.

“Some people join because of the charitable good work the lodges do; some join because it’s the world’s oldest fraternity and they like the history of it. Some people join because of the mystique and the mystery — if there is any left — and some people join because they want a combination of all of the above.

“Freemasonry is a secular organisation and is open to all religions. Anyone who believes a Supreme Being made the world can join the Freemasons, so long as they meet the other criteria.

“In this province, we do have some Muslim and Hindu members, we have a Baha’i member, we used to have Jewish members and the rest are from Christian traditions.

“Historically, the lodges evolved from being stonemasons to people using the traditions and practices of stonemasonry and brotherly love on their morals, education and family, for the good of society, between the 1300s and 1400s.

“The stonemasons had their own language, signs, symbols and tokens. We don’t have our own language but some of the signs have been kept for tradition.

“All the meetings are run like business meetings with minutes, correspondence, matters arising and reports but there are also lectures and information events, concerts and charitable events held throughout the year.

“Since 2006, we’ve been opening the Masonic Hall to the public on Heritage Day and on Culture Night every year since 2008. The building is open for use by the public, mainly by historical groups who are interested in the furniture and furnishings, who do tours of the building. Every year, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster — which has about 400 members, divided between the 14 lodges — raises about 25,000 to 50,000 in charitable donations.

“These combined activities contributed toward our Provincial Grand Master, Leslie Deane, being awarded the Lord Mayor’s Community and Voluntary Civic Award this year.

“Freemasonry is about making good men better. There is a women-only Freemason’s Society that’s been in existence in the UK and America for the last 100 years. When the Freemasons were founded, all organisations were gender-explicit so Freemasonry was no different.

“We use a lot of symbolism — the skull and crossbones are emblems of mortality — to remind us that we are but dust and that we will become dust again.

“We have a couple of sayings that sum up Freemasonry and this is one that I think is succinct: ‘I shall pass this way but once and if any good I can therefore do for my fellow humans, let me do it now, for I shall not pass this way again’.

“There’s an emphasis within Freemasonry on doing things properly, from the way you carry yourself to the way you treat others to how you treat education and charity.

“Within the chaos of society, the Freemasons hasn’t changed for the sake of change. We still have the same old-world traditions and sayings and that’s something that interests me,” he said.

The Evening Echo

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