Some Thoughts on the early development of the Irish Three Degree Craft System

There has been ongoing debate over many years about the early evolution and development of our three degree Craft ritual throughout the various outposts of Freemasonry within the three home Constitutions within the British Isles. For some, Freemasonry began in 1717 in London and has slowly spread throughout Ireland and Scotland from its early beginnings in London. Another school of thought supports the case that Freemasonry originated in York in the year 926AD when King Athelstan’s son Prince Edwin was said to have held a general assembly of Masons at York, wherein the great traditions of symbolic and operative Masonry were constituted, revived, or organised and a new code of laws for the governing of the craft were instituted. Sadly records of these events including the original Charter were said to have been kept in the archives of the old Lodge at York, and were alleged to have been destroyed during the War of the Roses.

Scotland, of course, developed similar but different General Assemblies under the auspices of the Earls of St Clair of Roslin, who reputedly acted in a supervisory role over Scottish operative masons, adjudicating on any trade disputes that might arise.

I of course hold a different view, in that I see many early references in the oral traditions of Ireland, and in our undoubted ability to deliver complex stories by rote from generation to generation. Indeed it is only in the last thirty years that we in Ireland finally published the wording of our Craft degrees. We too have our old muniment books from cities such as Dublin, Cork & Kilkenny, and surviving records of masons from our operative’s gilds from Dublin, where our gild was known as the Masons and Helier’s (Slaters) gild. Here we find amongst the gild officers the Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, and Gerald, Earl of Kildare, both speculative members of the gild.

Much is made of the fact that no old English language rolls or manuscripts survive in Ireland; yet we have a tradition of Masonry dating back before the Druids. Our land is covered with a plethora of round towers, beehive huts, church buildings, ringforts and other more esoteric examples of the stone mason's craft. Current Irish language researchers such as Bob Quinn (writer of the book The Atlantean Irish) are looking into the existence of a unique secret language used by the stone  masons  of  Ireland, using  words  and  phrases  which  derive  from Hebrew, Phoenician and Ancient Irish. Could it be that our long sought-for ‘Constitution Rolls’ will be found amongst the rich store of early Irish manuscripts meticulously being investigated by the Irish Language Commission in Dublin?

Suffice to say, at this point that the known roots of the Masons tongue from Hebrew, Phoenician and Ancient Irish fits well with the long-held beliefs of some of our better informed Irish brethren on the kernel of truth hidden amongst our many folk tales about the existence and travels of the Tuatha De Danann that magical tribe, who play such a prominent role in the spiritual development of the Irish people.

One important aspect of our ritual is the existence of a developed three-degree system in Ireland around the year 1711. Documentary proof was found in the collections of Trinity College, Dublin, and was subjected to some very detailed inspection by the brethren of Quatuor Coronati Lodge in the early part of the twentieth century. Here one will find many matters that only appeared in English and Scottish ritual at a considerably later date. Knoop, Jones & Hamer in their seminal work The Early Masonic Catechisms give a complete copy of this short catechism, which had previously been published in its entirety in the Transactions of The Irish Lodge of Research No CC for the year 1924. 

Interestingly, thanks to the excellent research carried out and published by Wor Bro Yasha Beresiner, in his 1998 Master’s paper for Quatuor Coronati, he finally found an intriguing single sheet exposure filed away in UGLE, as part of a rich collection of ephemera that originally belonged to a famous English Masonic collector called A. M. Broadley. This entire collection was purchased by Wor Bro Wallace Heaton, another noted Masonic collector and PM of Quatuor Coronati, who presented same to the U.G.L.E. library and museum in 1939. The particular document of great interest to us is entitled The Whole Institutions of Free-Masons Opened as also their Words and Signs. This document is the earliest known Irish Masonic exposure published by William Wilmot, a known Dublin printer at the time and is dated 1725. We attach a copy of this important document and allow you to make up your own minds as to its importance or otherwise. Here also, you will find mention of another early Royal Arch term.