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Moment of unity - Irish rebels and Freemasons

(Kenneth L. Dawson, Irish News)

The 1798 rising found a seemingly unlikely ally in some elements within Feemasonry. Kenneth L Dawson examines the links between the Freemasons and the United Irishmen in late 18th century Ireland.

While the hierarchy of the Freemasons in Ireland abhorred the seditious tactics of the United Irishmen, many Free-masons' lodges – particularly in Ulster – rallied to the radical cause.

Freemasonry developed in parallel with the Volunteers and later the United Irishmen and it is an undeniable truth that many Freemasons were implicated in the insurrection. It is also a fact that many Freemasons assisted in the quelling of the revolutionary fires in 1798.

The first meeting of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen took place on 14 October 1791 and the list of those present reads like a 'Who's Who' of Belfast civic and economic life, not just its radical undercurrent.

Those present included the merchants Henry Haslett, William Tenant and the clock maker Thomas McCabe. These three men were all Freemasons – Haslett and Tennant were members of Lodge 257 and McCabe a member of Lodge 684.

The meeting was chaired by Sam McTier, also a Freemason. Other members of Lodge 257 who became United Irishmen included William McCracken (brother of Henry Joy McCracken) and George and Thomas Sinclair, whose brother William was another founder member of the United Irishmen.

George Sinclair would briefly be Adjutant General of the United forces of Co Down in June 1798, shortly after the arrest of Reverend William Steel Dickson on the eve of the Battle of Ballynahinch.

James McGuickan, the Belfast solicitor and United Irish legal supremo (later an informer), was another member of Lodge 257 as was the ship broker Robert Hunter, later a member of the Provincial Committee of the United Irishmen who was arrested in 1798 and incarcerated at Fort George in Invernesshire.

When the Dublin society assembled, it included Freemasons like James Napper Tandy and Archibald Hamilton Rowan, and the United Irishmen met at the Tailor's Guild Hall near Christchurch which was, incidentally, the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.

After 1795 the United Irishmen – now suppressed because of its pro-French sympathies at a time when England was at war on the continent – embarked on a more subversive and revolutionary course.

Some of its leading emissaries were Freemasons – people like William Putnam McCabe, Henry Joy McCracken and Bartholomew Teeling and it is highly likely that they used Masonic lodges as a cover for their clandestine activities and that lodges provided fertile ground in terms of United Irish recruitment.

The first United Irish martyr was William Orr, from Farranshane, near Carrickfergus, who was sentenced to hang after being found guilty – on dubious evidence – of having administered the United Irish oath. After Orr's hanging in October 1797, he was given a Masonic funeral. His solicitor was James McGuikan and his defending counsel John Phiplott Curran – both fellow Masons.

The year 1797 was one where government repression was having its desired effect on the structure and morale of the United Irishmen. Key arrests punctured the movement, as General Lake's dragooning of Ulster rendered the cradle of the United Irish movement much less capable of forming the vanguard of any future revolutionary project.

In Armagh, 37 Masonic lodges admitted that some of their members had been United Irishmen and they published a resolution denouncing this practice in the hope of "wiping away the stigma".

Before we see Freemasonry and the United Irishmen being linked too closely, let us remember that a great number, probably a majority, were opposed to the rebellion. Lord Donoughmore, Grand Master of Ireland who had long championed the cause of Catholic Emancipation, was horrified at the excesses of the insurrection – Lord Downshire was the reactionary governor of Co Down and a member of Masonic Lodge 257 and the Orange Lodge of Belfast.

Major Charles Sirr, the chief of Dublin police who would in 1803 arrest Thomas Russell at 29 Parliament Street, was a Freemason. The Monaghan Militia, which fought ferociously against the insurgents in Bridge Street, Ballynahinch, on June 13 had its own Masonic lodge, the warrant being issued only in 1797.

Daniel O'Connell, an outspoken opponent of the rising, was a member of Lodge 413 in Limerick, and the Grand Lodge, remember, did reassert its control over errant lodges after the rebellion.

So it would be wholly erroneous to pronounce that Freemasonry was solidly behind the United Irish project or that lodges had official sanction to be so.

Persuasive individual Masons in certain lodges were able to dictate the direction of those lodges and use the tenets of Freemasonry to their own political ends.

Despite the protestations of the Grand Lodge, it is easy to see how the principles of the Masons were entirely compatible with many of those of the United Irishmen.

To conclude, we need to consider exactly what role the Freemasons played in the momentous events of the 1790s.

Despite the unambiguous position of the Grand Lodge, individual lodges were involved in the intellectual, political and military climate that produced the United Irishmen.

The emergence of the Volunteers and the United Irishmen revealed strong Masonic influences because all these organisations promoted the removal of sectarian divisions, the equality of the different denominational groups and the creation of ties of brotherhood.

Many leading United Irishmen were Freemasons and lodges were used as cover for the clandestine activities of the former.

A number of leading Masons can be implicated in the rising itself, but it is important to remember that many dominant figures on the conservative side were also Masons and that brethren confronted each other during the battles and skirmishes of 1798.

May 10, 2003

This article appeared first in the April 28, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News