1798 and Freemasonry

Published in Issue 4 (Winter 1998), Letters, The United Irishmen, Volume 6

Sir,—I greatly enjoyed your Summer 1998edition dedicated to the 1798 rebellion. I discovered aspects new to meand interpretations which challenged my conceptions based as they wereon,

In the county of Wexford those
rebels did rise,
All brave Orangemen they thought
they’d sacrifice….

Tofind that Scullabogue barn is little known in (local) popular historyand that Church of Ireland members were prominent rebels is refreshingas well as informative but highlights one of the major problems whendealing with Irish political history – too many people want to forceyesterday’s events into today’s neat compartments, a trait touched onby John Turpin.
One organisation which played a prominent partin this rebellion, and which today has still not been acknowledged, arethe freemasons. Their doctrine of universal brotherhood seems to haveinspired the United Irishmen, while that of allegiance due to thesovereign would appear to have provided the raison d’être behind theOrange Order. From my, albeit distant, viewpoint it would appear thatall parties have colluded, perhaps (probably) not consciously, todownplay their part in preparing the intellectual climate for whatensued. The Roman Catholic Church, republicans, Orangemen, and notleast the freemasons themselves have all had their own agenda to pursuewhich is not that of the historian.
That freemasonry was abattlefield of political thought can not be denied from the variouspublic utterances of the protagonists:

Garvagh Lodge 730—’that fictious truths such as monarchy, royalty,…are oppressive mountains…under which poor Erin sinks’;

Dungannon, after a meeting of thirty lodges—’Let every lodge…be a company of citizen soldiers’.

Thereare others of a contrary viewpoint such as a newspaper advertisement of5 July 1797 when eight lodges professed their loyalty to government.There are at least twenty-four occasions on which political statementsor rejoinders were published.
It was also round about thisperiod that a number of masonic lodges adopted titles which would havebeen more at home on Orange banners although whether these were adoptedbefore or after the crisis period of 1797/98 would have a bearing ontheir significance. There were True Blues (6), Orange (7), AncientBoyne (Bandon), and Glorious Memory Orange Lodge of Dungannon. Fromwhat I have been able to ascertain most of these lodges now no longeroperate and those who might still be in existence will probably havechanged their titles.
In Freemasons’ Hall, London, there is amanuscript copy of minutes of the Grand Lodge of Ireland committee forthis period, which are a masterpiece of understatement and diplomacy.One of the chairmen was a certain Daniel O’Connell. One can see thatthere were tensions and undercurrents, especially in Armagh, whileTyrone and Armagh were responsible for 40 per cent of the new lodgesduring the period 1792-98. The political tension was also reflected bythe number of lodges given permission to operate in regiments: 1792(1), 1793 (2), 1794 (0), 1795 (1), 1796 (3), 1797 (2), 1798 (5).
The Grand Lodge committee did not meet from May until November of 1798and then in a spirit of retribution. A month later it was stated thatreligious and political dissension was against its fundamentalprinciples and two months after that a motion was made that an act ofoblivion of the differences of the conduct in Grand Lodge on 6 December1798 that had taken place, which was passed.
From more than twohundred miles and centuries away I wonder who were these disputingfreemasons. I wonder too, what was the fate of Southwell McClude Masterof Lodge No.5 (Waterford?) or James McNulty of No.10 (Belfast?) both ofwhom were specifically mentioned as taking part in the rebellion.Subsequently when did freemasonry and Orangeism, as related by Plowdenand Senior, cease their, often violent, rivalry.
Nowadays I haveheard and read of freemasons vilified as if they and Orangemen wereinterchangeable. This is a mid-nineteenth-century agenda which tookroot, still flourishes in certain quarters, and deserves to beconfronted so that Irishmen, north and south, can enjoy, or deplore,their common history.—Yours etc.,
5 Digdens Rise
Surrey    KT18 7DL


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