Upon the level and by the square – freemasonry and engineering
07 April 2015
Kenneth L. Mitchell explores the ancient and continuing link between the engineering profession and the fraternity of freemasonry in Ireland
In November 1830, in the city of Limerick, an architectural engineer by the name of James Pain made a fascinating discovery. He had been contracted for the sum of £3,000 by the New Limerick Navigation Company to replace the ancient Baal’s Bridge (1340) that linked the Englishtown on King’s Island to the Irishtown area on the mainland.
During the excavation work on the original four-arch bridge; his workmen discovered in the northeast corner, under the foundation stone, an old brass plate much eaten away. This plate was in the shape of a stone mason’s square and engraved on the two sides were the words:
Upon the level, by the square.
An ordinary person would have possibly treated this item as a curiosity, a souvenir of a job well done, but James Pain recognised it as something more. In fact, he recognised those very words.Those words had become an integral part of his life, a personal code to live by, for Pain was a freemason and the implement he was looking at was not a stonemason’s square, but a Freemason’s square.
Pain had just discovered one of the oldest Masonic relics in the world, physical evidence that freemasonry existed in Ireland as far back as the Middle Ages. He was just one in a long line of engineer freemasons that stretches from ancient times to the present day.
Origins of freemasonry
The origins of freemasonry are lost in myth and legend; some suggest the ‘craft’ as it is known, goes back to ancient Egypt, others to the time of the Knights Templar. The most accepted theory is that they originated from the Craft Guilds of the middle ages – the builders of great cathedrals, churches, castles and bridges. Back then, ‘operative’ freemasons had to know more science than other people in the Middle Ages. They constructed engines such as elevators and cranes, used chemicals in staining of glass, knew mechanics and had to employ mathematics (geometry especially) at every step in their work. They were the engineers of their day.
In the 1600s, in Scotland, ‘operative’ freemasonry gradually changed to ‘speculative’ freemasonry. Non craftsmen were allowed to join and an emerging middle class joined in large numbers. Even kings and other royalty joined this ‘society of equals’, where the discussion topics of religion and politics are still to this day strictly forbidden. Over the centuries, however, freemasonry never lost its link to engineering. Its esoteric ceremonies, symbols and expressions are all interspersed with engineering references. Most obvious of these is the ‘square and compass’ symbol.
Many great Irishmen have been freemasons, including Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, Oscar Wilde, the Duke of Wellington, Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Daniel O’Connell, Thomas Barnardo, Ernest Shacklelton and Joey Dunlop, to name a but a few. The same is true for many famous engineers: Alexander Mitchell, Sir Joseph Banks, Samuel Colt, Erasmus Darwin, Richard J. Gatling, John L. Macadam, Antonio Meucci, Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier, James Watt and Steve Wozniak are again only a small example.
In 1826, Pope Leo XII threatened Catholics who were freemasons with excommunication, sparking an exodus from the fraternity (including Daniel O’Connell) and decimating the organisation. The social revolution of the 1960s and ’70s also led to a decline as social tolerance increased. The idea of a place where people of different social classes, religions, ethnicity, philosophies and politics could meet in harmony and friendship did not seem so radical anymore.
Today, Irish membership numbers around 25,000 and freemasonry has experienced a bit of resurgence lately with a proportional number of engineers joining, thus maintaining the ancient tradition. This is mainly due to the ‘secretive society’ becoming more open and relevant to the modern world, opening its doors to visitors, hosting musical events, plays, social evening, tasting nights and even clay pigeon-shooting days. In short, becoming part of the community rather than apart from the community.
The fraternity still has many functions. It is part esoteric and historical society with ancient initiation rituals, part toastmasters and social meeting place, part gentlemen’s club and part charity. By way of charity, the freemasons discretely give a large amount of money every year to medical research, orphan funds, scholarships, elderly folk’s homes and even supply teddy bears to children’s hospitals free of charge.
Modern freemasonry in Ireland
If your beginning to think this is a bit of a love letter to freemasonry, you are correct in your assumption – time to ‘out’ myself and admit to being a member. I first became interested in ‘the craft’ when I discovered how much their charitable endeavours had helped a member of my partner’s family when tragedy struck.
With that in my mind, I decided to go into Freemasons’ Hall on Molesworth Street, Dublin, to visit its museum and take a guided tour of the building. After some research, I asked to join (freemasons do not recruit). I am a history nut and freemasonry oozes history. I loved the engineering symbolism utilised, the ancient traditions and their discrete philanthropy and charity. I attend meetings one evening a month. Being surrounded by successful people made me realise that you should strive to improve yourself and the world you live in. I honestly believe it has helped me become a better man and a better engineer.
The organisation stresses that family and work come first at all times and have no religious or political agenda. By definition, the fraternity is male only but it would consider itself similar to the ‘men’s shed’ movement, the Irish Country Women’s Association or the Women’s Institute. There are, however, similar unaffiliated Masonic-like bodies for women-only and mixed genders.
Whenever I am in Limerick, I try to visit the small freemason museum beside the castle and I always take a route over Baal’s Bridge. I cannot help but wonder if James Pain perhaps left a Masonic symbol of his own in the north-east corner of the new bridge he built – left there, hidden beneath the foundation stone, waiting for another engineer to discover it hundreds of years later. It would be poetic indeed if that person was also a freemason.
The Baal’s Bridge Square can be viewed in North Munster Masonic Centre, Castle Street, King’s Island, Limerick. James Pain died on 13 December 1877, aged 98, and is buried in St Mary’s cathedral church in Limerick.https://www.engineersjournal.ie/2015/04/07/upon-level-square-freemasonry-engineering/https://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Image-2.jpghttps://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Image-2-300x300.jpgCivilbridges,construction,Dublin,Ireland,Limerick