Freemasons in Irish Folklore
Last Month in my article about the massive storm that hit Ireland in 1839 I mentioned a tidbit that superstitious people seemed to blame the storm on Freemasons who supposedly had raised the devil and failed to contain him. Alternately, it was claimed that the Freemasons specifically called on the devil to raise the storm to eradicate the Catholics of Ireland. I saw the idea of raising the devil mentioned at least in passing in several articles I found about the “Night of the Big Wind”. So it’s clear that wild conspiracy theories around Freemasonry have been around for quite some time.
While looking into this I also ran across references in Irish folklore that suggest that in some parts of Ireland Freemasons were also seen as users of magic. In fact, it seems that “freemason” was a sometimes a generic folk term used for men who were suspected to have uncanny abilities. In addition to raising the devil, some of the stories deal with alleged “freemasons” using their magic to influence, or take revenge on neighbors who wronged them. My evidence mostly comes from stories collected in the 1930’s by the National Folklore Collection in Ireland. One of the recorders of the stories specifically wrote:
“The phrase ‘he has the freemason,’ common in this locality suggests to me that anyone who professed or was supposed to have unusual powers was considered a Freemason.” He then goes on to tell about a certain Ned McMahon who was “confidently” said to be “a Freemason.” Ned borrowed money from a Cobbler name Moroney and when Ned failed to pay him back Moroney:
“…seized his one black cow, which was also the only beast he (Ned) had. So furious was Ned with Moroney that he read the “cursing psalms”, a proceeding fraught with grave danger to the curser no less than to the cursed for a mistake would mean the reversion of the evil on the curser. Ned was not quite sure he had read the psalms correctly and lived in trepidation for some hours until he saw a horseman galloping from the Glenmore side. On inquiring he learned that Moroney, the cobbler was grievously ill and that the horseman was flying for the priest. Moroney died and Ned considered himself well revenged.”
The following “Old Story” was collected from a gentlemen from Kilkenny.
“It was the custom in the Colliery (coal mining) district years ago with landowners to give permission to poor people to sink shallow pits on their land, there being a vein of shallow coal about ten or twelve yards deep.
About this particular time there was a certain labouring man living in the district who had been to England and had there become a Freemason. He was very unpopular in the district and no one wanted to have any dealings with him. He had on several occasions asked permission from a farmer to sink one of these shallow pits on his land. The farmer would not have anything to do with him owing to his reputation. This farmer was very fond of coursing keeping several greyhounds. He was going along the road one day with two greyhounds which he was training for a coursing meeting when he met this Freemason on the top of Massford bridge. He again asked for permission to sink the pit which the man refused whereupon the Freemason struck the side of the bridge and out jumped a hare. The two greyhounds took at her on the road coursing her round the road till they were nearly dead. He again asked for permission to sink the pit and the farmer told him he would give him anything if he would save his greyhounds for him. No sooner had he said these words than the hare instantly disappeared.”
“A Story” Recorded July 1938
“One day a man went to thrash oats for a man who happened to be a Freemason.
On finishing the man said to the Freemason “If you have any power bring me here the devil if you can.”
“Ah! you would be too much afraid” laughed the Freemason.
“Not at all ” said the man.
The free-mason lit a candle and shut the barn door. At once the devil put up his head out of the floor The man said, “He’s not up far enough yet and when he got a little further he hit him with the flail.
The free-mason told him to stop and he asked the devil did the man hurt him.
The devil said, “No, his faith that has hurt me most.”
The Taking of Butter
And account of getting revenge on a thief.
“There was an old Freemason in Ennistymon long ago who had a nice farm and ten cows. He could not make as much butter under them as would do his own use. So one day he came into Ennistymon and went into a shop where butter used to be retailed. Laying his eye on a certain lump of butter he asked the shop keeper who did he get it from, and he said, “From a neighbour of yours”. Give me two pounds of it he said. He went home with it and eating it thought it much like his own.
He ordered his man to put down a big fire. He went out in the yard got a horse shoe put it into the fire. He told the man to lock the door and not to let anyone in until he would call himself. About twelve o’clock at night a knock came to the door. The boy went in and told the Boss who went out and asked who was there. “Tis I Doctor, don’t you know me”. “Come in poor man” he said, what is wrong with you.
“Biddy is very bad with a pain in her hip”. “Go home” he said “and tell Biddy give me back my butter and I will cure her”. The poor man went home and told his story. Biddy promised to repay the Doctor for all the butter she had took from him if he cured her pain. So the Doctor took the red horse shoe from her and the pain disappeared. The Brand remained and Biddy never interfered with anyone’s butter again.”
The fact that this “freemason” was referred to as “Doctor” makes me wonder if he was a doctor in the medical sense (which certainly could be the case as the owner of a “nice farm and ten cows”, or possibly he was a “doctor” in the sense of a traditional healer.
A story from an 1829 book Killarney Legends: Arranged as a Guide to the Lakes Vol. 2 about the “Wizard of Dingle” who even took revenge against brother stone masons.
“Robert Fitzgerald was by trade mason and not only that but he was said to have been a Freemason and was suspected of being an adept in the black art…
…This aspect together with his reputation as wizard rendered him an object of fear and to the country people who generally to his charge any misfortunes which befell or their cattle and in his own line of business one cared to interfere with him by which he was left in the quiet and undisputed of the building trade in Dingle.
I won’t put up with it any longer Mr Hickson (said) one morning in a terrible passion and no wonder for Fitzgerald who was (doing) mason work for him had kept the job hands for upwards of six months and though he was to be paid by the day builder will be inclined to blame yet as Mr Hickson’s pocket was to brunt it is no wonder he should be although proverbially the best in the whole county I won t put it any longer said he I suppose you think can t get any one to come between you and the but you re quite mistaken for there’s the Neils just come from the north so I discharge this minute you old sorcerer and now let me what good the devil your master can do you Fitzgerald.’
Tis a bad thing to speak of the devil on any account and tis very seldom that much good comes of it but Fitzgerald made no answer he only gave a most ominous squint and muttered badershin as he walked away with his trowel in his hand and his hammer under his arm wiping his dark forehead with the corner of his leather apron No sooner had Fitzgerald departed than Mr Hickson proceeded to Mary Murphy’s house where the two Neils were lodging How are you Mary Very well I thank your honour and proud I am to see your honour looking so bravely this blessed morning Thank you Mary but where are the two masons that came to lodge with you lately?
Why your honour it isn’t two minutes since they went out is it work your honour would have for them 7 if it is sure I can send them up to the big house the moment they come in and tis they are the quiet decent bys any how but I thought Fitzgerald had your honour’s work and they say it isn t lucky to cross him.
Fitzgerald! I have just turned the rascal away and intend giving the work to the Neils so Mary send them to me and as you value my favour none of your stories about Fitzgerald and the black art besides you are a sensible woman and ought to see that the fellow is only scheming to keep the work to himself so good by Mary but remember not a word.
Now Mary though she remembered very well couldn’t for the life of her resist the desire she had to tell the Neils all about Fitzgerald for besides the inclination a woman feels for every thing forbidden Mary was a real believer in the power of the black art and all the stories she had heard of Fitzgerald.
When the two Neils came in and Mrs Mary Murphy saw what likely proper young men they were she thought it would be a mortal sin to let any harm come to them for want of a little bit of advice then having told them about Mr Hickson’s work she advised them to have nothing to do with it telling them how Fitzgerald became a Freemason in spite of his reverence Father Sheehan how he refused to confess the secret and how his reverence wouldn’t give him absolution or the rites of the church how Fitzgerald had sold his soul to the devil who gave him power to play the dunnus o the black art and how in consequence no one dared to cross him But the young men being glad to get employment only laughed at Mary’s hows and without further parley set off for the big house and engaged with Mr Hickson.
Things went on well enough for some time and many people said that all the stories about Fitzgerald were only old women’s pishogues (old wive’s tales) but those who knew better shook their heads and said it was only the calm before the storm.
Who are them going across the bay Norah said Fitzgerald one fine morning as he stood at his cabin door looking at a boat that had just left the shore.
Wisha then tis only the Neils going across to the quarry for stones said Norah who was an old woman that used during the day to brush up and take care of Fitzgerald’s cabin for he was a lene man.
The Neils is it run Norah and bring me a cool of the salt water.
Norah did as she was desired at the same time wondering what he should want with the salt water so though she was desired to go home she thought it no harm to hide herself in a corner of the loft.
The morning was as fine as ever shone the sea calm as glass and not as much wind stirring as would serve to fill a whistle when the unfortunate Neils left the shore and yet the boat had scarcely reached the middle of the bay when a terrible whirlwind arose which upset their boat and the young men were swallowed up by the remorseless deep.
Old Norah swore that at that very time she saw Fitzgerald from her concealment in the loft take a wooden bowl and put it floating on the cool of salt water then muttering over it the bowl began to spin about and the storm to rise till at last when the bowl was upset he stopped his muttering and said all was right for the Neils were done for Be this as it may it is certain that for ever after no one ventured to molest the wizard of Dingle.”
It seems pretty clear that the Freemasons have long been viewed with suspicion at least by the more superstitious peoples of Ireland.