Freemasonry in Meath and Westmeath
W.Bro. Larry Conlon.
Extracts relating to County Meath and Navan.
The popularity of the Masonic Order in Meath owes much to the fifth Viscount Netterville, the Right Hon. Nicholas Netterville,who held the office of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1732. He resided at Dowth, County Meath and came from an Anglo-Norman Catholic family; his mother, Frances, was the eldest daughter of the Earl of Rosse, the first Grand Master of Ireland.
Within seven years of his election to office, the first Masonic lodge had been established in the town of Navan, when lodge No. 107 was granted a warrant, on 6 May 1739; this was followed by the establishment of lodge No. 197, on 4 October1749, at Oldcastle. The town of Trim saw its first lodge established on 7 May 1772, and it was in this lodge, No. 494, that both Richard Colley Wellesley, the 2nd Earl of Mornington, and his distinguished brother, Arthur, the Duke of Wellington,41 were admitted as Masons. Their father, Garret, was also initiated into this lodge. He was remarkable for his musical talents and was a founder member of the Dublin Musical Academy in 1747. Both Garret, the 1st Earl, and his son Richard Colley Wellesley, the 2nd Earl, were Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of Ireland for13 the years 1776 and 1782 respectively. Two further lodges were also established in County Meath, the first, lodge No. 509, on 4 November 1773, at Crossakeel, Kells, and lodge No. 607, on 1 January 1789, in the town of Kells. Both lodges were involved in the Volunteer movement. Another notable Meath family to be initiated into the Order was that of Ruxton. Captain Ruxton,originally from Bective, fought for the Crown at Ardee in 1641. As a result he was granted extensive lands in the area. He settled in Ardee and later became an influential member of Ardee Corporation. His grandson, William Ruxton of Ardee House, born in 1721, became a renowned surgeon. He was one of the founder members of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1784. William Ruxton also held the prestigious position of Deputy Grand Master in the Grand Lodge of Ireland in the year 1769.
Another example of the influence of the United Irishmen can be seen from the fact that in the Drum area of County Monaghan many Orangemen were leaving the Orange Order and joining the United Irishmen. A similar occurrence was also noted in County Cavan. Despite the continued disbandment of the Volunteer force after1782, the introduction of the Irish Militia Act of 1793 fell well short in curbing the activities and growth of the United Irishmen in Leinster, a cause for mounting concern amongst local magistrates. It was under this Act that both the Meath and Westmeath regiments of the Militia were first established. Even during the time that these regiments were being formed, the United Irish Society was spreading rapidly throughout Ulster and the Midlands, with United Clubs being formed at places such as Newry,Dundalk, Ardee, Navan, Jamestown, Elphin, Tullamore, and Limerick.
No sooner was the United Irish Society established in Leinster than simultaneous moves were made to establish new Masonic lodges in the counties of Meath and Westmeath. This was quickly followed up by the granting of warrant No. 773, in 1792, to hold a Freemasons' lodge in Kinnegad. A number of other lodges warranted at this time were as follows: on 7 November 1793, lodge No. 791 was constituted within the Westmeath Militia, followed by lodge No. 862, in the town of Trim, in 1798, and finally the establishment of lodge No. 898, on 7 May1801, within the Meath Militia. From the time of the formation of these lodges until after the rebellion of 1798, regiments of both the Meath and Westmeath Militia had been infiltrated by the United Irishmen. This all took place at a time when these regiments were actively engaged in attempting to apprehend and incarcerate members of both the United Irish Society and the Defenders. It was also from the mid 1790s that northern United Irish emissaries were first reported to be actively organising disaffection amongst the regiments of the Militia in the counties of Meath, Tipperary and Cork.The Ulster United Irish leaders regarded the recruitment of Defenders and especially Defenders in the Militia, as the key to their revolutionary potential after1795. And it is quite clear from contemporary accounts that considerable recruitment from the regiments of the Militia took place in both the counties of Meath and Kildare, in preparation for the rebellion of 1798. This is demonstrated by the case of William Aylmer, a young Lieutenant in the Kildare Militia, who mutinied when his commanding officer, the Duke of Leinster, resigned from the regiment. Aylmer then combined with a band of rebels in harassing parts of Dublin, Kildare and Meath, plundering houses and murdering Protestants.
Another notable fraternal society of the period was the Roman Catholic Defenders. This society, originating in 1784, was often misrepresented by historians in the past who alleged that it was a sectarian society similar to the Orange Order, recruiting only Roman Catholics for its membership. Whilst up until 1795 the Defenders, like the Orange Order, remained loyal to the Crown, membership of the Defenders was by no means solely confined to Roman Catholics. In time the Defenders directed their support towards the republican aims of the United Irishmen, and in Ulster, many Presbyterians swelled the membership of the latter, including the redoubtable Jimmie Burns and James Napper Tandy. At first the Defenders differed in their ideals from the United Irishmen and were engaged only in defence of Roman Catholic properties and providing protection for Roman Catholics in attacks from the " Peep O'Day Boys".By 1792, however, the organisation had changed from being a society engaged in religious feuding to one activated by political motives. With the occurrence of the "Armagh outrages" in 1795, when several hundred Roman Catholic families were forced to flee from their properties and settle in other counties, it was accepted by the Defenders that their overall aims differed little from those of the United Irishmen.
From its origin in 1795 until the 1820s the recruitment of membership of the Orange Order was drawn largely from within the community of the Established Church. As the century drew to a close there was an increase in small societies and factions. This, coupled with agrarian unrest which gave rise to faction fights and disturbance, prompted the government to investigate the situation.This enquiry revealed a host of small societies and factions such as Billy Smiths, Fraternals, Moonlighters, Ribbonmen, Rookies, Shamrocks,Thrashers, Whiteboys, Whitefeet, and Northerners. They also adopted Masonic practices; for example, one faction, styled on Ribbonmen, were known in County Meath as Billy Smiths. This group was bound by "secret oaths and secret passwords".
As a result of his inquiry Dr. Wade issued an approved Grand Lodge pamphlet, which contained the rules and regulations in relation to the registration and conduct of members of the Order, and by the turn of the nineteenth century, this measure had largely proved to be fruitful. A subsequent committee of The Grand Lodge of Ireland reported in January 1801 that the great need of the moment was to get in touch with lodges, many of which were extinct; many others were in arrears, whilst some had not been heard of for years. The non-communication of 169 lodges with the Grand Lodge of Ireland between mid-1795 and 1815 begs the question: what exactly was the number of Masonic lodges which had United Irish involvement? The Society of United Irishmen was known to have concealed their gatherings under the pretence of meeting as lodges of Freemasons. And indeed there is a high probability that many of these 169 lodges fell into that category. At least one County Meath lodge (No. 107), which had been established in Navan in 1739, had its warrant cancelled on 7 October 1813, by the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Between 1798 and 1850 the number of Masonic lodges in Meath fell from 9 to 1. These figures did however gradually increase as the nineteenth century.
Masonic Lodges warranted in County Meath from 1739 to 1850
Lodge No. 107 granted to Navan in May 1739, cancelled 7 October 1815.
Lodge No. 161 granted to Kells 7 July 1808, transferred to Slane 4 February 1819, cancelled 4 February 1836.
Lodge No. 197 granted to Oldcastle 4 October 1749, cancelled 5 November 1801.
Lodge No. 297 granted to the 5th Royal Irish Dragoons, cancelled 2 July 1818, transferred to Drumconrath 5 September 1822, cancelled 6 November 1845.
Lodge No. 494 granted to Trim 7 May 1772, compounded for arrears 7 July 1811.
Lodge No. 509 granted to Crossakeel 4 November 1773, cancelled 7 July 1825.
Lodge No. 607 granted to the 13th Light Dragoons (King Hussars) 5 September 1782, transferred to Kells 1 January 1789 and removed to Navan 24 June 1821. No returns to Grand Lodge after 1832.
Lodge No. 862 granted to Trim 1 March 1798, duplicate issued 1805, original warrant having been destroyed by accident cancelled 7 January 1830.
Lodge No. 898 granted to the Meath Militia 7 May 1801 at Kells, warrant suspended 1 March 1849.
Examples of names of first Lodge Officers from 1738-1793
Lodge No. 107 held in Navan from July 1739.
(Return of officers for 1763.)
Laurence Donnelly, Worshipful Master.
William Stapleton, Senior Warden.
Thomas Wilkinson, Junior Warden.
Lodge No. 494 held in Trim 7 May 1772.
Alex Wood, Worshipful Master.
Henry Reynolds, Senior Warden.
John Chapman, Junior Warden.
Lodge No. 509 held in Crossakeel 4 November 1773.
Tobias Chester, Worshipful Master.
Edward Byrne, Senior Warden.
John Byrne, Junior Warden.