Politicians and archaeologists have had a long and interesting relationship with secret societies. Elias Ashmole, a founding Fellow of the Royal Society, was a politician, officer of arms, student of biology, astrology, and alchemy, and an antiquary. By any measure a polymath, he was also an early Freemason. Indeed, Ashmole’s initiation into the Lodge at Warrington in Lancashire in 1646 is the earliest known record of such a ceremony in England. Grand Lodges also eventually appeared in Ireland in 1725 and in Scotland in 1736 and spread across the globe in the wake of the British Empire. Ashmole, however, was primarily a collector of antiquities and, in 1677, he gifted to the University of Oxford the founding collection for the museum that would bear his name.
In 1658, 12 years after Ashmole’s Masonic initiation, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, determined the exact date of the world’s creation. Based largely on biblical genealogies this turned out to be 4004 BC, later refined to 9:00pm Sunday, 23 October. After rounding down to 4000, this would become the starting point for Masonic dating worldwide. The year AD 2022 becomes 6022 Anno Lucis or 6022 AL. Locally, Northern Ireland’s Young Earth creationists also embrace Ussher’s date for the formation of the world. Lucis, or lux, is Latin for light and a reference to the Genesis passage, ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light’.
Light holds a deep mystical significance in Freemasonry with a favourite dictum, ex oriente lux (out of the East, light), referring both to the sun rising in the east and the orient being the source of greater wisdom and deeper spirituality. Indeed, persisting until relatively recently, there was a widespread belief among Masons that Freemasonry originated in Egypt. This is rooted in the Biblical tale of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, where they were put to work on grand architectural projects such as the Great Pyramids of Giza. Reputedly, the skills they acquired would subsequently be employed in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
With its Egyptian-style design and décor, the Grand Royal Arch Room of the Freemasons’ Hall in Dublin pays lavish homage to Freemasonry’s imagined oriental heritage. For the new Provincial Grand Lodge room in Rosemary Street in Belfast, local artist John Luke was commissioned in 1956 to create a mural to adorn the tympanum above the dais. Measuring 9.4m (24 ft) wide and 2.1m (5.3ft) high it depicts the building of King Solomon’s Temple and is laden with conflated Biblical and Masonic symbolism. A railway bridge in Newry known as the Egyptian Arch in a more mundane example of the widespread 19th century Egyptomania which swept across the British Isles in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat in Egypt. Completed in 1851, it passes over the Newry–Camlough Road and was the result of a collaboration between civil engineers John Macneill and William Dargan.
Appointed Chief Engineer of Ireland in 1798, General Charles Vallancey, was a philologist, orientalist, antiquarian, and Freemason. He founded the Phoenician Scytho-Celtic school of Irish philology and saw Phoenician letterforms, and possibly Masonic symbols, in the Neolithic spirals of Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) at Newgrange. This would eventually result in James Joyce asserting in 1907 that the Irish language “has been identified by many philologists with the ancient language of the Phoenicians, the originators of trade and navigation… who established in Ireland a civilization that had decayed and almost disappeared before the first Greek historian took his pen in hand.” Antiquarian contemporaries of Joyce were also inspired by Vallancey’s musings on Irish origins.
Founded, in 1897, in the Leinster Lecture Hall at 35 Molesworth Street, Dublin, a few doors up from Freemasons’ Hall at numbers 17-19, members of the British-Israel Association determined that the Ark of the Covenant had been buried at Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. With Indiana Jones like zeal, they also determined that its retrieval was their destiny. During 1899 and 1902, members of the British-Israelites London Association came to Co Meath to dig up the Hill of Tara, much to the concern of many locals with a less destructive interest in Irish national antiquity. However, developments in modern chronological techniques and methodology would bury all ideas of proto-Irish apprentices indentured to Egyptian Master Masons.
In the early days of the Radiocarbon Dating revolution, calibration was achieved using known-age samples from Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms. As the technique was refined it became clear that Newgrange was built six centuries before the oldest pyramid and seven hundred years before Stonehenge. Moving with the times, Dr Robert Lomas, a British academic physicist who has written extensively on Freemasonry and Masonic symbolism, appears to acknowledge the seniority of Brú na Bóinne. He infers that triangle symbols used in Newgrange where subsequently seen in the pyramids of Egypt (Lomas 2011, 69).
While the work of many writers on the subject of Ireland’s antiquities might be best described as fanciful, Henry O’Brien’s hypothesis concerning Ireland’s ubiquitous souterrains and round towers met with universal derision. In June 1835, the Dublin Penny Journal reviewed his essay, ‘The Round Towers of Ireland, or, The Mysteries of Freemasonry, of Sabaism, and of Budhism: For the First Time Unveiled’ thus:
Indeed the theory altogether is a disgusting one ; and although our readers may have thought, that in alluding to Mr. O’Brien’s “caves under ground, and pillars over ground,” as representing parts of the human body to which decency forbids more particular allusion, we were only sporting with their fancies, we assure them, that it as an effort of ours, with as much delicacy as the subject would permit, to propound his theory in a way likely to be understood by those capable of understanding such matters.
Perhaps the world was not quite ready for his pre-Christian Irish phallic cults. In any event, shortly after this review, aged only 27, O’Brien died of “bad health, aggravated by his studious habits”. Historic concerns over the activities of Freemasons would be rekindled in 2015 when a secret list of members going back almost 200 years was made public.
A US Senate inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was harshly critical of the White Star Line and singled out the British Board of Trade for culpability. The UK inquiry headed by Lord Mersey, on the other hand, avoided apportioning any such blame into the sinking which cost the lives of more than 1500 passengers and crew. It now transpires that Mersey and Lord Pirrie, who was not only chairman of shipbuilders Harland & Wolff but also a director of White Star’s parent company, were Freemasons. Sydney Buxton, the President of the Board of Trade, who had responsibility for the regulations that allowed the small number of lifeboats on the ship, was also a Mason. He was initiated at Limehouse in East London in 1888 when he was the local Member of Parliament (MP).
MPs are still not compelled to declare that they are Freemasons but may choose to disclose this information in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. None currently do so. This information may also be requested from individual MPs but, for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, they are not public authorities and are not obliged to respond to such requests.
Brian Monteith served briefly as a Member of the European Parliament for the Brexit Party and was one of four self-professed Freemasons previously Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP). There is also no requirement to register or declare any interest in relation to Freemasonry but MSPs may register on a voluntary basis. None currently do so.
David Rowlands was elected to the Senedd as a UKIP member for South Wales East in 2016. He switched allegiances first to the Brexit Party and then to the Independent Alliance for Reform before losing his seat in 2021. At that time, he was the only remaining parliamentarian in Britain to have publicly declared membership of the Freemasons.
In 2011, there were three members of the Freemasons in the Northern Ireland Assembly, all Unionist politicians. Two recent leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were members of the Freemasons. One, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann MLA, is also a member of the ‘Loyal Orders’ while the other, Steve Aiken MLA, recently resigned from the fraternity. This was confirmed by a spokesperson from the UUP Constituency Office on The Square in Ballyclare. The Register of Members’ Interests also reveals that Ross Hussey, a UUP MLA prior to the spectacular exposure of hitherto ‘undeclared interests’ and his resignation in 2017, was a member of the Freemasons. This also confirms that he was in receipt of a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) pension, a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and a member of the Orange Order.
Of the 60 elected members of Belfast City Council (BCC), the current High Sheriff of Belfast, Councillor John Hussey of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is alone in declaring membership of the Freemasons in the Register of Members’ Interests. In 2011, there were three members of this organisation on BCC.
The various Registers of Members’ Interests require individuals to list interests which might reasonably be thought by others to influence how they act in their capacity as elected representatives. Codes of Conduct further remind them to act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner and that information should not be withheld from the public. However, an example from the Scottish Parliament is informative. In 2013, Tom Minogue MSP lodged a petition called ‘Secret society membership declaration by decision makers’:
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to amend the law or codes of practice to make it compulsory for decision makers such as sheriffs, judges, and juries at their courts, arbiters, and all panel members of tribunals that are convened and held in Scotland and governed by devolved legislation, custom and practice, to declare if they have ever been members of organisations, such as the Masons, that demand fraternal preference to their brethren over non-brethren, or organisations which have constitutions or aims that are biased against any particular sect, religion or race.
It was held that no further action was necessary in relation to the issues raised in the petition. Nevertheless, it encapsulated the concerns of many. The inclusion of organisations with a religious bias is of relevance to Northern Ireland (NI).
The Orange Order’s rule book, while informing members that it is an exclusively Protestant Association, pledges “… not to persecute, injure, or upbraid any person on account of his religious opinions…”. However, this is followed by the qualification “… provided the same be not hostile to the State…”, which throws up an obvious question regarding who exactly might fall into the category of ‘hostile’. Would this include anyone with Republican aspirations and, if so, to what extent might they then be persecuted, injured, or upbraided? There are obvious concerns for all public servants, including police.
Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, an Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland was set up to consider, among other things, how membership of secretive or sectarian organisations might impact on an officer’s behaviour. In response to the subsequent ‘Patten Report’, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 contains a clause relating to ‘Notifiable memberships’:
For the purposes of this section, a police officer has a notifiable membership if membership of the organisation in question might reasonably be regarded as affecting the officer’s ability to discharge his duties effectively and impartially.
The Patten Report suggests that, in 1999, 9% of police officers were members of such organisations. A recent Freedom of Information Request revealed that of its 7,000 officers almost 400 (6%), ranking from Constable to Chief Superintendent, were members of organisations such as the Freemasons and/or the Orange Order. By contrast, one Sergeant was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and one Inspector a member of the Knights of St. Columbanus.
No membership details of memberships are recorded in the MP Resister of Interests. In his entry, Gregory Campbell, DUP MP for East Londonderry, notes the “Unremunerated interests currently registered on the NI Assembly website register do not appear here as they are not registrable under House of Commons rules”. Of NIs 90 MLAs, 10 (11%) are members of ‘notifiable’ organisations, Freemasons and/or the Orange Order, while nine (15%) of Belfast’s 60 Councillors fall into this category. The inclusion of Councillor Séanna Walsh, a member of the Irish Republican Felons’ Association, would increase this number to ten (17%).
Any ban on memberships would probably amount to a Human Rights violation. Nevertheless, elected representatives have a duty to all their constituents and membership of secretive and/or sectarian fraternal organisations would raise obvious concerns about their impartiality. The compulsory registration of membership of notifiable organisations, as happens with the PSNI, might help but perhaps there is some truth in the old saying that no man can serve two masters.
Lomas, R. 2011. The Secret Power of Masonic Symbols: The Influence of Ancient Symbols on the Pivotal Moments in History and an Encyclopedia of All the Key Masonic Symbols. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press
David Bell is an Alliance Party Councillor on Belfast City Council and a Governor at two primary schools. He is also a member of Humanists UK and, until recently, following a career as a secondary school teacher, was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University He is writing in an entirely personal capacity.