The introduction to Ireland of what is recognised as Modern Freemasonry lagged developments in England by some four years. Dublin press reports of the Duke of Montagu’s decision to accept the position of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England attracted broad interest in Ireland. It featured across the political spectrum in both pro-government and opposition newspapers. John Whalley’s loyalist Dublin News Letter carried a description of Montagu’s installation in July 1721, and the following month, John Harding’s opposition-leaning Dublin Impartial News Letter gave an account of the initiation of Viscount Hinchingbroke, Sir George Oxenden and Sir Robert Rich at the King’s Arms tavern at St Paul’s Churchyard. On top of this were reports of the Duke of Wharton’s decision to join the Craft and Irish newspapers alerted their readers that ‘his Grace [Wharton] was admitted into the Society of Freemasons… and came home to his house in the Pall Mall in a white leather apron’. Despite selling his Irish estates to fund his investment in South Sea Company stock, Wharton had a following in Ireland and was friends with many of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy including Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, later the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.
In Ireland as in England, freemasonry was led publicly by the aristocracy. Born in Twickenham to the west of London, Rosse had succeeded his father as Viscount Rosse in the Irish peerage in 1702 and at the age of 22 was created an Earl by George I to encourage and reward his loyalty. He was appointed Grand Master of Ireland in 1725. There is no information on those holding office at the Grand Lodge of Ireland from 1726-30 and Rosse may have remained at the head of Irish Freemasonry until 1731, when Lord Kingston succeeded him.
Rosse had rank, celebrity, and extensive connections derived from a family present in Ireland and active in its administration for some two centuries. Rosse also had a similar character to the aristocrats who had become figureheads at the Grand Lodge of England: young and affluent, they acted as beacons to prospective members.
Like Wharton, Rosse was also a libertine whose fortune was directed principally towards personal pleasure. Following a Grand Tour of Europe and Egypt from 1731-35, he established a Hell Fire Club in Dublin where wealthy young Protestant rakes could drink, whore and gamble. But notwithstanding such excesses, Rosse was a loyal Hanoverian and his Grand Officers, the Hon. Humphrey Butler (DGM), Sir Thomas Prendergast (SGW), Marcus Anthony Morgan (JGW) and Thomas Griffiths (GS), equally loyal.
Although some historians have argued that the Grand Lodge of Ireland in its formative years was the subject of a struggle for dominance between Irish Jacobites and pro-Hanoverian Whigs, and that Irish freemasonry was split accordingly, there is slight evidence to support the contention. Indeed, the opposite appears to have been the case with Irish Freemasonry reflecting the ascendancy of the Anglo-Irish elites.
The driving force behind the formation of Irish Grand Lodge and the participation of the aristocracy, gentry and professional classes in Dublin was a desire to emulate the celebrity of the Grand Lodge of England. The Irish press published regular reports on English Freemasonry throughout the 1720sy. Exposés were also published in Dublin, including The Grand Mystery of the Free-Masons Disclosed, and a riposte, The Free-Masons Vindication, being an Answer to a Scandalous Libel. And copies of the 1723 Constitutions were advertised widely and sold by Dublin’s booksellers.
The first evidence of a Grand Lodge appears in June 1725 in The Dublin Weekly Journal, which published a lengthy account of Rosse’s appointment as Grand Master. The report covers almost a full page and describes the procession, installation and subsequent grand feast, recording that ‘above a 100 gentlemen’ met at the Yellow Lion in Warborough Street and ‘after some time putting on their aprons, white gloves and other parts of the distinguishing dress of that Worshipful Order… proceeded over Essex bridge to the Strand and from thence to the King’s Inns’. The parade included the masters and wardens of ‘six lodges of gentleman freemasons… under the jurisdiction of the Grand Master’, and after ‘marching round the walls of the great hall… the grand lodge, composed of the Grand Master… Grand Wardens and the masters and wardens of the lodges, retired to the room prepared for them where… they proceeded to the election of a new Grand Master etc’.
The article continues, recording that after dinner, ‘they all went to [a] play, with their aprons etc., the private brothers sat in the pit, but the Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master and Grand Wardens, in the government’s box.’ The report is written in a style that implies that the Grand Lodge of Ireland had been in existence for some time, albeit that the opposite was probably correct. And although modelled on the Grand Lodge of England, there were points of difference, notably the election of the Grand Officers by the members of Irish Grand Lodge as a whole rather than their appointment by the Grand Master.
There are no further references to the Grand Lodge of Ireland and few others regarding Irish Freemasonry until March 1731, when the Dublin Weekly Journal published a report of a Lodge meeting held on 6 March. This also took place at the Yellow Lyon Tavern in Warborough Street. The Journal recorded that Earl Rosse, Grand Master, the Hon William Ponsonby, worshipful master, and his two wardens, William Cooper and Rowly Hill, were present. Others attendees included Lord Kingston, the past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England; the Earl of Drogheda; Lord Southwell; and Thomas Griffith, the Grand Secretary. The Journal noted that ‘upon proper application, the Rt Hon. the Lord Tyrone, the Rt Hon. the Lord Netterville, the Hon. Tho. Bligh, Esq.; and the Hon. Henry Southwell, Esq.; were in due form, admitted members of that Ancient and Right Worshipful Society’.
The number of Irish press reports on English Freemasonry and its various charitable activities and feasts etc., suggests that the subject remained of interest, as does the publication in 1730 of John Pennell’s Irish version of the 1723 Constitutions. Pennell, afterwards Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, had advertised in Faulkner’s Dublin Chronicle for a minimum of two hundred subscribers and achieved this goal without difficulty. His work contains a small number of differences in Masonic ritual when compared to the form practiced in London and may have reflected the then current practice in Ireland. The variations include the form of prayer at initiation and the role of deacons, who would have been the stewards of the lodge in England. Over time these and other relatively minor discrepancies would come to be treated as more substantive.
An enduring mark of Irish Freemasonry from the 1750s was its strong relationship with the London-based Antients Grand Lodge. This was cemented by the appointment of the Earl of Blessington (pictured), Grand Master of Ireland in 1738 and 1739 and a leading Irish peer, as the Antients’ first noble Grand Master, serving from 1756-60. Alongside, from the late 1750s Laurence Dermott, the Antients’ Grand Secretary’s Ahiman Rezon displaced the 1723 Constitutions on which it was based to become the principal Irish Constitutions.