The Irish in North America

An estimated 300-400,000 Irish migrated to North America between 1720 and 1800. Most, around three-quarters, were Ulster Presbyterians – Scots-Irish – with a wholly different back-story to the Southern Irish who now epitomise Irish-America.

In the eighteenth century the Scots-Irish population was not spread evenly across the thirteen colonies but gravitated towards specific regions, especially Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the Carolina Piedmont, the upland plateau between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachians.

The Scots-Irish were descended from Lowland Scots who had been encouraged to colonise the Plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century, a process that began under James I in the early 1600s and continued through to William and Mary in the 1690s. As Presbyterians they were subject to laws which restricted their legal rights but despite what is claimed, the mass migration of the Scots-Irish from Ireland in the eighteenth century was not due solely or mainly to religious and political discrimination, nor was it a function of the famines that racked Ireland decade by decade, although these factors played a role. The main drivers were growing financial hardship, a result of rising land rents and Britain’s anti-Irish trade legislation, and the pull of better economic prospects elsewhere.

An obvious destination was England, especially London, which attracted a large proportion of Irish émigrés, many of whom used it as a staging post before leaving for America. Estimates vary, but in the 1750s the London Irish numbered in the tens of thousands, probably around 40-50,000. Many congregated in the slums of St Giles, known as ‘Little Dublin’, and St Martin’s, nicknamed ‘Porridge Island’, and in the crowded alleys, courts and lanes to the east of the City of London.

For those with poor education and narrow skills, life was tough and work irregular and poorly paid. And even when waged labour became more common in the second half of the century, conditions were sweated with many forced to call on parish funds and charity to supplement their earnings. But despite the barriers, a significant minority climbed the economic ladder. The number of Irish artisans, professionals, and Irish-owned businesses expanded. Many prospered and broke free from poverty. And it was from this layer of aspirational London-Irish society that Antients Freemasonry was born.

At the time (and subsequently) differences in Masonic ritual were put forward as the ostensible reason for the division between the ‘Moderns’ (the original Grand Lodge of England) and ‘Antients’. But this is only partly correct. There were differences of course, most obviously the Royal Arch degree, but these were exaggerated, as were disputes over the role of deacons, the transposition of words in the degree ceremonies, and other relatively trivial matters. But Moderns and Antients’ ritual had far more in common than was admitted and this was known at the time.

A more significant conflict between the Moderns and Antients was social. Many English freemasons viewed freemasonry as an elite activity and wished it to remain so. But there was something else: the disdain expressed by much of eighteenth-century England for the Irish. Moderns freemasonry followed suit, especially in London. Expatriate Irish were disparaged and many who asked to join English lodges were refused. There were several reasons but perhaps the greatest concern was a belief that the thousands of incoming Irish émigrés, many poor or destitute, posed an existential threat to Masonic charitable funds.

The position was made clear at the core of the Grand Lodge of England with the Moderns’ Grand Secretary, Samuel Spencer, reportedly telling an Irish supplicant that ‘Your being an Antient Mason, you are not entitled to any of our charity. The Ancient masons have a lodge at the Five Bells in the Strand and their secretary’s name is Dermott. Our society is neither arch, royal arch or ancient so that you have no right to partake of our charity.’

Spencer’s views were not supported by the facts. Antient Freemasonry’s membership records and minutes confirm that its members shared a desire for social and economic betterment. The same attitude was present across the Atlantic where from the late 1750s Antients Freemasonry captured the new American zeitgeist.

In neither England nor America was Antients Freemasonry for the poorest in society. Initiation and membership fees and the obligatory charitable contributions were set at levels too high for most working men. But for those who could afford to join, there were multiple reasons to remain. The lodge provided an exclusive space for fraternal association; afforded a sometimes-spiritual experience; offered opportunities for self-improvement and networking; was a forum for local democracy; and allowed members to gain experience in public speaking. The lodge also served as a mutual benefit society and provided entrée to Antients’ lodges elsewhere, whether in Britain, Ireland, America, the Caribbean, or other outposts of Empire.

The five Irish-led lodges that founded the Antients Grand Lodge in 1751 were joined by another four within twelve months and a further thirty within five years, by which point the number of members recorded in the Antients’ central register exceeded a thousand. Within two decades the Antients had more than 200 lodges across London, provincial England, and overseas, a figure that excludes lodges warranted by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and the many tens if not hundreds of lodges that lacked a formal warrant.

Membership grew, underpinned by a succession of aristocrats who agreed to accept the role of Grand Master. and supported by large-scale Irish migration, travelling military lodges, and the dissemination of Ahiman Rezon, the Antients’ book of constitutions.

Ahiman Rezon was immensely popular. Twelve editions were published in England in the half century to 1800, and more than twenty in Ireland; copies also circulated across the American colonies and would later provide the basis for the constitutions of America’s post-war State Grand Lodges.

The chartering of Antients lodges in America’s middle colonies is well-documented from the late 1750s and 1760s. The Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, formerly Philadelphia’s lodge No. 4, which obtained its Antients’ charter from London in 1759, was especially active, warranting lodges across Pennsylvania and in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and North and South Carolina. The establishment of Antients lodges mark the path of Scots-Irish migration in America and the westward march of the frontier.

Antients freemasonry was also transported to America by Britain’s military, with many regiments deployed to Ireland and granted travelling warrants by the Grand Lodge of Ireland before crossing the Atlantic. Other British regiments received warrants directly from the Antients Grand Lodge in London.

Although early American freemasonry followed English (especially London) practice, in the run-up to Independence and throughout the war itself American freemasonry altered. Many Moderns freemasons who were loyalists were forced to flee during or after the war, while those who remained faced fines or the confiscation of their assets and social opprobrium. In contrast, many notable American patriots were associated with Antients freemasonry.

Following the War of Independence, the lodge became a preferred space for the new nation’s leaders. Freemasonry in America was viewed as a font of Enlightenment virtues, high moral principles, and an organisation that worked for the benefit of the community as a whole. This aspect was made tangible at the dedication of new public buildings and monuments from the Capitol Building in Washington, where the foundation stone was laid by George Washington, the nation’s first President and an Antients freemason, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where General William Richardson Davie, the Grand Master of freemasons in the state, a war hero and a national and state politician who had helped frame the U.S. Constitution, presided over the Masonic ceremony. Based on such foundations, Antients freemasonry flourished, with members drawn from the elites and the middling, whether farmers, merchants, storekeepers, tavern owners and local politicians, an accessibility and inclusiveness that changed the social demographics of American freemasonry.

The illustration is of a multi-degree Antients apron dating from the late eighteenth century.