Freemasons are actually a bunch of regular guys
Conspiracy theorists will be greatly disappointed, but Masons are not a threat to civilisation after all, writes Liam Collins
Before pushing open the heavy blue door, I pause on the top step and look back at Dail Eireann, the National Library and Museum, the institutions of the Irish State, then I enter into another world of mystery and ancient ritual, of secrets and lies, the search for truth and remembrance of things past.
When you enter the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons in Ireland, in Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, it has the feel of a gentleman's club and I am ushered politely into the library to await the presence of the Most Worshipful Brother Douglas T Grey, Grand Master of the order founded in Ireland in 1725.
'Doughie', as it turns out, is dressed conventionally in blazer and slacks, the garb of an insurance executive, which he once was. But within these walls he is referred to as 'Grand Master' and when he talks personally or on his phone he speaks to 'Young Sir' and other such titles of the order he now heads.
Freemasonry is not a secret society, but a society with secrets, its adherents are fond of saying.
The Grand Lodge in Dublin was donated by the Duke of Leinster, who lived across the road in Leinster House and that particular Duke, Augustus Frederick, is commemorated in a life-sized portrait in the Lodge Room, which seats 250 members on benches much like you see in televised snippets of the House of Commons.
"The frames are probably worth more than the paintings," says Douglas, sweeping his arm around the other massive portraits - The Earl of Charleville behind the Grand Master's throne, the Duke of Abercorn, Albert Prince of Wales, and other blue bloods, all decked out in the regalia of the Masons.
"The last Grand Master with a title was Lord Donegal, but in recent years it's all ordinary people and it doesn't matter anyway because in Freemasonry everybody is equal," he says, standing before the table on which stands a Bible and the Masons 'Volume of Sacred Law', which is always open at gatherings.
There are also two cubes of white cut stone, one rough hewn to symbolise the person unformed, the other smooth and polished to indicate those who lived by the order's principles of 'square dealing'.
It is not a religious organisation. "Peace, love and harmony are the watchword of the order, it is about brotherly love, trying to be better people" insists the Grand Master.
Although he concedes that the Masons is now a largely Protestant organisation, Daniel O'Connell was once a member and it attracted many Catholics until it came under sustained attack from the Catholic church and, in particular, the powerful Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid.
"It is forbidden to discuss religion or politics at our meetings" adds the Grand Master and he insists that it has Jewish and Muslim members who sit together at meetings as good brothers.
"We're known as a secret organisation, but in fact you will find out all our secrets in any good library and our website contains a great deal of information about Freemasonry, including the dates and minutes of our meetings. We have nothing to hide."
The one thing they haven't been good at, he says, is publicising the good works they do - charitable work such as funding research into the hospital bug MRSA; looking after the families of members who have fallen on hard times; funding a sheltered nursing home for non-masons; and running the prestigious Freemasons Young Musician of the Year, now in its sixth year, an international competition, with the winner getting a solo performance backed by the RTE Concert Orchestra.
The Grand Master is a little nervous of publicity and gets even more nervous when we dress him up in a ceremonial apron and cuffs, sky blue with golden harps, and a chain of office. The reason for this is that he hasn't brought his own paraphernalia (his chain is solid gold) and these belong to the organist, who plays a prominent role in their ceremonies.
"The Lodge members will all know I'm not wearing the right gear," he says with an accommodating smile. The order members, carrying boxes with their ceremonial outfits, are a well-known feature of this part of town, going to and from meetings.
The meetings are confined to members, with various officers in set positions around the Lodge Room. There is music from the organist and, according to the Grand Master, "a lot of rod carrying", although what that entails is not clear. For the annual meeting, they used to dress in tails, but it is now black tie and they sit down to 'supper' afterwards.
Genial Douglas Grey feels the public perception of the Masons hasn't always been good. What with funny handshakes, or 'grips' as they are referred to, quaint greetings and mysterious ways, they have engendered suspicion.
So is it a secret organisation whose members 'look after' each other?
"If people don't know what is going on, they assume something bad is going on," he concedes. "Of course, we do look after each other, as anybody would - but it is a family organisation, you may not use it for business or self-enhancement. There is no doubt that you would want to talk to people you know if you wanted advice or help, business or otherwise - but isn't that the same as the 'old school' network or the golf club or the rugby club?"
To think otherwise would be "foolish", he says. But apart from the ceremonial aspects of its existence most of their energy is "devoted to self-improvement, charitable deeds and sociability".
A little bit of the paranoia surrounding the Masons comes out when I bring up the subject of Jonathan Corrie, the homeless man who died two doors down from the Masons splendid building last December.
"We were extremely relieved that he didn't die in our portico, because there are certain elements in the media who would use that to get at us." But the Grand Master quickly adds that homelessness is one of the charities that the organisation supports.
After seeing the Lodge Room, which is the main ceremonial chamber in the building, I thought I had seen it all. Not so. There are other rooms that have made the Masons headquarters among the most popular destination for visitors to Dublin on 'Culture Night' and Heritage Week.
The Grand Master is determined I see it all, so he brings me to the Princes Room, a smaller room with carved seats and ancients pendants hanging from the walls, an 'invitation only' club within the organisation. Then off to the Knights Templar's room, which a magnificent chimney piece, a carving on the wall flanked by carved skull and cross bones resonating of the 'Da Vinci code', which both of us regarded as rubbish.
"We have nothing to hide" he says, showing me through double doors and into the Egyptian-themed red 'Royal Arch Chapter' with its Pharaoh heads and candelabras along the walls.
"It's not that mysterious" he says, "this theme was a big thing among the Victorians."
His own office is functionary and far from the grandeur and mystery of the meeting rooms above.
"It is a family organisation, but you have to be careful it doesn't take over from the family, because there are so many meetings and so much to do" he says.
Down here, the only indication of his role is a large gold medallion as a paperweight on a pile of documents on his desk. He says he had no family connection to the Masons, only joining when he was asked by a friend.
Nor had he any ambition to become Grand Master, but to his surprise he was appointed Deputy by the previous Grand Master and will complete his first year in that role on 28th of November.
The organisation is still in a healthy state, with 550 lodges around Ireland, a good proportion in Northern Ireland, where it was "a haven" for people from both communities during the Troubles.
"At the moment, society is in a serious state of flux, in many respects formal religion and politics have let people down and people have looked to us in some way as a form of stability" he says, adding: "Of course, it is not a substitute for religion or politics, but the majority of people live decent lives and see Freemasonry as an addition to that."
The Masons have neither an affinity with the Orange Order nor with the Catholic Knights of Columbanus, although Douglas Grey's own lodge contributes to the 'Knights' Christmas dinner for old folks and did consider inviting the Knights over for supper - "but they are a religious organisation and we are not".
Out on Molesworth Street once again, it is like having been on an exotic journey into history, yet the Freemasons are a living organisation that will throw its doors open again on Culture Night next Friday. There are some who see a sinister side to it, but the internet is full of conspiracy theories.
What I saw was a fraternal men's club, people who like dressing up and indulging in ancient rituals and ceremonies and doing good for themselves and others.
What's wrong with that?
The Young Musician of the Year takes place in the Freemason's Hall, 17 Molesworth Street, Dublin, with the semi-finals on Thursday, October 8 and the final on Saturday, October 10. See www.freemasonsmusic.ie.