WE PAY A VISIT TO ARKLOW’S MASONIC LODGE
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF CALLED TO THE MASONIC HALL IN ARKLOW TO FIND THAT SOME THINGS HAVE CHANGED VERY LITTLE SINCE 1800 – THOUGH THE LOCAL LODGE HAS ADAPTED TO MODERN CONDITIONS AND MODERN DEMANDS
IT HAS TO be the longest running organisation in Arklow if not all of County Wicklow. Here is a body of men – they are all men – who maintain an unbroken tradition going back more than two centuries in the town. The 41 current members, covering the age range from 23 to 80, are part of a movement which can trace its origins much further back, to the days when the great castles and cathedrals of Europe were constructed.
It was not until the year 1800 that the Wicklow Militia was granted warrant Number 877 to establish a lodge of the Masonic Order in Ireland.
The timing and the title suggest that the organisation was very much a part of the Unionist establishment of the day, with meetings convened at the militia depot in Wicklow Town.
By 1815 the lodge had ditched all formal association with the army and had also moved a few miles south to take more permanent root in Arklow. The order is a great respecter of tradition, however, so the words ‘Wicklow Militia’ remain in the title, with no reference at all to Arklow.
It has been thus for 217 years and it will remain forever thus, in accordance with the founding guidelines laid down in warrant Number 877.
Mention of lodges and of an order tend to create confusion in some minds with the Orangemen who celebrate July 12 with loyalist gusto.
Such misperception is quickly dispelled by a chat with Arklow stalwarts Jimmy Woolmington and Harvey Heavener. Where the Orange perspective is unflinchingly Protestant and its adherents pledge allegiance to the British Crown, the Masons have no such standpoint.
It is a firm rule of the brotherhood, strictly observed, that politics and religion are not mentioned at meetings. Jimmy reveals that he is often completely in the dark as to the faith of his fellow Freemasons as denominational ties have no relevance to their acquaintance.
The only requirement is that members must profess a belief in a supreme being – atheists need not apply. Whether they seek that supreme being in church, chapel, synagogue or mosque matters not at all to the order.
The reality is that Islam frowns on Freemasonry, so Moslems are few among the ranks.
Also, various Popes down through the ages have sometimes perceived the organisation as a threat to their authority.
So, prominent Roman Catholic Mason such as Daniel O’Connell have come under pressure at times to cease their participation.
With or without the blessing of the Vatican, Freemasonry has been a factor behind the scenes in Irish life since the early 16th century, if not earlier. The first lodges were made up of (no surprise) masons, skilled workers in stone who wished to promote their craft and their employment rights.
They were in effect branches of a trade union which kept outsiders excluded by using passwords and a ‘grip’ – the distinctive handshake.
By the time the order established a presence in Arklow, the range of professions involved had extended far out from a single branch of the construction industry.
They retained and continue to retain the language of building in their proceedings nevertheless, with symbols such as the plumb line and set square permeating proceedings.
Jimmy Woolmington explains how the tools of the old trade provide meaningful guidelines for how a Mason should conduct himself.
The phrase square dealing, for instance, harks back to that set square as a reminder of the requirement to carry out all business on the level. Similarly, the always true and always vertical plumb line is interpreted as an injunction to live an upright life.
THE minutes of the meetings of lodge Number 877 have been preserved since the year 1857 and Harvey Heavener has trawled through the old records for some nuggets. The annals include the by-laws of 1858 which laid down the firm instruction that the ‘books containing the minutes of the transaction of the lodge must never be removed from the lodge room’. Thanks to the fact that this rule has been obeyed, a rich history has been preserved in the books.
The bye-laws exhibited a desire to preserve a sense of sober decorum with fines threatened for offences such as drunkenness (two shillings), cursing (six pence) or leaving meetings early (six pence).
The written record mined by Harvey Heavener illustrates some of the concerns of his predecessors in the Arklow lodge during Victorian times.
His researches show that the members appear to have enjoyed their food, with a Masonic dinner held in 1873 at Hunter’s Lodge in Woodenbridge.
Three years later a charge of five shillings per head was applied to those who dined at Fitzwilliam’s Hotel in Rathdrum.
Two years later again an evidently much more elaborate affair was staged at Wynn’s Hotel in Rathdrum at a cost of ten shillings per head.
Business contacts were clearly part of the mix as it was noted that hoteliers Hunter and Wynn were ‘Brothers’ – that is, lodge members – though not apparently Fitzwilliam.
There may have been an element of snobbery to the organisation as it was noted in 1886 that Cecill Howard, sixth Earl of Wick low, became a me affiliated affiliated. However, there has always been a more serious side to the Freemasons, with a long held tradition of support for education illustrated in the following note from 1871:
‘Brother Steadman proposed that the lodge subscribe the sum of £1 annually to each of the two Masonic schools in Dublin.’ The schools, one for girls and the other for boys remained in existence well into the 20th century and the order continues to support schooling in other ways.
The modern-day lodge contributes around €3,000 each year to charity, money which not only provides scholarships but also looks after
widows or assists members who have fallen on hard times.
As a national organisation the Masons support an assortment of good causes, with the Alzheimer Society, the Samaritans and Laura Lynn Foundation among those on the list.
Arklow courthouse was a regular venue for meetings of the lodge until a Masonic Hall was constructed at Ferrybank in the town in 1900.
A fine black-and-white photograph of the upstanding Masons of the day attending the opening ceremony at the dawn of the new century is an arresting feature of the building to this day. The image was on show recently to the general public as the doors were opened to all comers during National Heritage Week for a day. The place now hosts at least ten formal meetings a year, with the basement rented out to serve as a pre-school.
Those who came to Ferrybank in heritage week were admitted to the fine timbered meeting room in the extensively refurbished premises where the old-style collars worn by office holders were on display.
The once-a-year invitation underlines that Freemasonry is not the secret society that it is sometimes painted, though members like to preserve some of the mystique. The regalia robes and the finer points of the ceremonies are strictlystrictly confined to the initiated and always will be, because that it part of the appeal of belonging.
Change comes slow to the Masonic Order though Jimmy and Harvey are not necessarily opposed to admitting women. The ladies have already made the breakthrough to membership in the UK by forming their own separate lodges.
‘It is a fraternity, with a charitable ethos,’ is ho how Harvey sums up an organisati tion which provides members with co contacts all around the world.
He recalls being welcomed to gatherings of Masons in various countries – Tanzania, Australia, United States and Iceland to name ju just a few.
The web of fraternity starts closer to home as regular contact is maintainedta with lodges across the region in Greystones, Dalkey, Wicklow, Gorey,G Enniscorthy and Baltinglass.
JIMMY reveals that he was first inducted when working as a bank official in Donegal, offering him comradeship when he was living far ffrom where he was brought up.
For Harvey, who left school at a young age to work on the family farm, Freemasonry has provided a window on the wider world and some of the education that he mmissed out on as a youngster.
The two men disclose that meetiings include the singing of an oode and the reciting of a mason’s prayer, while office holders rejoice in titles such as ‘Almoner’ and ‘Steward’. Formal dindinners remain on the agenda, just as in the 1870s, but they prefer to keep some of the secrecy.
‘If you want to know any more you will have to join. I would not like the mystery to go out of it,’ says Jimmy with a smile, while Harvey adds: ‘We don’t recruit as such be we keep an eye out for a likely fellow.’
Jimmy Woolmington, Tony Thorpe, Brian Kearon, Seán Rafferty and Harvey Heavener at Arklow Masonic Hall.
Arklow Masonic Hall.
At the dedication of the hall in 1907.