Freemasonry is a little known part of the fabric of our history and at local level nothing is known of the Society by those who are not members. No doubt you, like myself, only know it as a secret organisation indulging in secret rituals and handshakes to which vivid imaginations over the years have imparted demonic significance. To Freemasons, however, it is not a secret organisation and they reject any suggestion to the contrary.
Modern Freemasonry in Ireland began with the establishment of the grand Lodge in 1725. It is claimed that traditionally Freemasonry began with itinerant craft masons or stone cutters who travelled in search of work and who developed secret signs known only to fellow craft masons. Whatever the validity of that claim it is indisputable that the earliest Freemason lodges consisted mainly of the gentry who were not in any was associated with craft workers.
Today there are approximately 730 Lodges in Ireland with a membership close to 50,000 of which approximately 7,000 members are in the Irish Republic. Athy has St. John's Masonic Lodge for which a Warrant issued from the Grand Lodge in 1840. The Athy Lodge is No. 167 and it has a membership of approximately 48.
Membership of the Freemasons is technically open to men of all religions but in practice it's membership is largely comprised of members of the Reformed Church. Within the ranks of the Athy Lodge there has only been one known instance of a Roman Catholic member. He was an employee of a local factory who spent a short time in Athy in the 1950's. Daniel O'Connell, a Catholic, was also a Freemason despite a Papal Decree of 1738 which prohibited Catholics from joining the organisation. It would appear that the Irish Hierarchy did not enforce that Decree until the early part of the 19th century. The present situation in relation to Catholic membership of the Freemasons is somewhat uncertain.
The first Master of the Athy Lodge was B.A. Yates who was followed in 1841 by Henry O'Neill. The Lodge Master and the other Lodge Officers are nominated in September, elected in October and installed in January each year. In addition to the Master, the other Lodge Officers are Senior and Junior Wardens, Senior and Junior Deacons, Inner Guard, Steward of Charities, Director of Ceremonies and Chaplain. Masons are called Brother while a Past Master is addressed as Worshipful Brother.
The position of Lodge Secretary has been occupied by only three persons since 1898. H.K. Toomey, a local Solicitor, was Secretary for 38 years and in 1937 Robert Youell took up the position which he retained until 1960.
The Lodge Members of Athy meet nine times a year and the meeting lasts approximately two hours. The earliest meetings which followed the issuing of the Lodge Warrant in 1840 took place in the house of Samuel Connolly of Emily Square. He was to be Lodge Master in 1846. Later on the Lodge met in the Courthouse before obtaining from the Duke of Leinster the lease of a room in the Town Hall, Athy, in the early 1860's. The Duke was Grand Master of the Irish Freemasons and for a peppercorn rent of 1/= per year the Athy Masons had exclusive use of a room on the top floor of the Town Hall for over 100 years. They left the building prior to its refurbishment and moved to their present meeting place.
The members in meeting wear the Masons Apron, and other regalia with it's predominantly blue colour. The Deacons bear staffs while the door is guarded by the Inner Guard who restrict entry to Freemasons only. The Masonic rituals are part of the Masonic secrets which members may not disclose as are the secret words, signs and grips used by the Masons. A Freemason is quite entitled to disclose his membership to a non-mason but most are very secretive about their membership.
There are five branches of Freemasonry operating in Ireland ranging from the Craft which is lodge orientated to the Royal Arch membership of which is open to Master Masons. Membership of the Royal Arch meet in Royal Arch Chapters and it's governing body is the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Ireland. The next highest branch of Freemasonry is the Order of Knights Mason, membership of which is open to Royal Arch Masons. The Order of the Temple is restricted to those Masons invited to join and its members meet in Preceptories. The highest unit of Freemasonry in Ireland is the Ancient and Accepted Rite for Ireland, membership of which is again strictly by invitation only.
Members of the local Masonic Lodges in Athy, Newbridge, Portlaoise and Carlow would not all necessarily operate at the various levels within Irish Freemasonry. However, Chapter Meetings of the Royal Arch are held four times a year in Athy while Preceptory Meetings of the Order of the Temple meet in Carlow and Portlaoise.
The objectives of the Freemasons have been claimed as "Benevolence and Brotherly Love" and a number of charities have been established by the organisation. These include the Masonic Girls Fund, the Masonic Boys Fund and the Masonic Annuity Fund for widows of deceased Members.
The claim that it is an anti-religious and politically orientated organisation is vehemently denied by the Freemasons. While the Masonic Meetings begin and end with prayers they dismiss any claims that theirs is an alternative religion. Perhaps its greatest and possibly only benefit to a local community lies in the expression of that Brotherly Love which causes Freemasons to come to each others help and assistance as and when required.