The Freemasons in Co Galway by Steve Dolan
As regular readers (of the South East Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Newsletter) will know, Freemasonry is a society with secret rules and somewhat mysterious rituals and they have existed in this country for over three hundred years. It appears that the earliest lodge in Co Galway was estab-lished in Galway City (lodge number 14) in 1733, with speedy growth throughout the county thereafter – namely in Tuam (no. 29, in 1734), Gort (no.70, 1737), and Loughrea (no. 87, 1738).
There is certainly no unanimity on the place or legacy of Freemasons in Irish history. Some Historians have sug-gested that that revival of Galway Town in the eighteenth century is partly attributable to the Freemasons though this appears to be a ‘rose-tinted’ perspective of the secretive society. Conspiracy theories abound, nationally and internationally. Persistent and pervasive accusations of corruption, again nationally and internationally, have dogged Freemasonry; as has the belief that many members boosted their career or prospects through networking, favouritism, or worse. Not in keeping with the ‘Peace, love and harmony’ ideal. By the same token, it should be acknowledged that Freemasons were one of the few organisations to welcome Roman Catholics as members in the eighteenth-century, before membership became forbidden by Papal Bull and marginal-ised by the national mistrust of secret societies in the 1800s.
Figure 1: Freemasons Grave-slab
One legacy is that Freemason iconography survives throughout the county. One example, above, shows a ledger (recumbent grave-slab in memory of James Lyons who died in January 1814) in Ardrahan. A number of freemason symbols are evident including a level, plumb, dividers and a square. Picture courtesy of Dr Christy Cunniffe. Notable other examples include those at Portumna (Richard Tydd, who died on 7 Nov 1788) and at Temple Jarlath in Tuam.
In the mid-eighteenth century, meeting places were often public houses e.g. ‘The Fountain Tavern’ (Loughrea), The Masons Arms’ (Headford), and ‘The Eagle Tavern’ (Galway); however by the nineteenth century dedicated buildings (e.g. at the bottom of Main Street in Ballinasloe) or purpose-built lodges (e.g. at Mill Street in Galway City) housed the gatherings of Freemasons.
It is also the case that Freemason Lodges boasted many members who contributed to the development of the county in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And there is the various charitable endeavours through the centuries in the county, and the country as a whole. The lodges appear to have been very supportive of each other and often lodges joined each other in processions as with lodges 14, 228, and 368 [reported by the Connaught Journal, 3 March 1823].
Figure 2: Freemasons Lodges (and numbers) in Co Galway in 1800.
While there were as many as eighteen registered lodges in Co Galway at the turn of the century, the decline would be rapid. By the 1820s that number had halved to nine, albeit a new lodge (no. 458) briefly existed at Portumna. The members at Portumna were Richd Tydd, John Dinnin, John Kelly, Robt Burnett, John Monaghan, Edw McDonagh, Cromwell Williams, Wm Betle, John Boyle, Henry Palmer, Jas Phelan, Dan Haverty, Thos Kent. The decline was partly due to emigration to the U.S. (economic ‘push’), and also a government crack-down against these societies.
The decline in membership / lodges has also been attributed to the increasing opposition of the Catholic Church, how-ever the overall decline also mirrors the economic and social decline in the country from the start of the century.
By the end of the century only two lodges in the county sur-vived, namely those at Galway (no.12) - the longest estab-lished in the county, and Ballinasloe (no. 137) - which survived until independence when it was destroyed.
The latter lodge is referenced in a Western Star article of 26 June 1846, right. Indeed there are countless references in the newspapers of the eighteenth (see Journal 19, Autumn 2015 for an 1757 article referencing Loughrea Lodge), and particularly the nineteenth century.
For those interested in specifics, the ‘Grand Lodge of Free-masons of Ireland Membership Registers 1733-1923’ are available on the web-site www.ancestry.com, with thou-sands of pages of records including listings of members (as with Portumna, above).
(no.s 87, 210,
248, 281, 357)
Galway (no.s 14, 19, 106, 228, 274,
(no.s 29, 501)
Just outside the village of Lawrencetown there once stood an elegant mansion which, at one stage, contained so many treasures of art and sculpture that one could easily confuse it with the Louvre in Paris. This elegant house was built in the mid 18th-century by one Col. Walter Lawrence, who was responsible for filling it with its many treasures.
This Chronicle was created using information originally published in the South East Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Newsletter No. 28.