In Brief

"Freemasons" or "masons" are members of an international fraternal organization composed of highly independent local units called "lodges." The tradition originated in stonemason guilds of the late Middle Ages but in time the tools of the trade (e.g., square and compasses, trowels, plumb rules) became symbols for moral lessons promoting the brotherhood of mankind. Meetings involve esoteric, quasi-spiritual rituals and members must profess belief in some supreme being, but discussion of religion is usually forbidden. The secrecy of masonic lodges has sometimes bred suspicion and conspiracy theories in outsiders, particularly in Ireland where most members have traditionally been Protestant. Leopold Bloom evidently is, or once was, a mason.

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In Lestrygonians Bloom recalls a night when "there was that lodge meeting on about those lottery tickets," and later in the same chapter Nosey Flynn tells Davy Byrne that Bloom has become prosperous because fellow masons have assisted him: "He's in the craft.... Ancient free and accepted order. Light, life and love, by God. They give him a leg up." The word "craft" here refers to Freemasonry's medieval origins, and other words echo its rites. Gifford comments: "the order regarded itself as practicing 'Ancient and Accepted Rites', to which all 'free men could be admitted'. Three symbols of light dominate the Masonic temple: the Volume of the Sacred Law (the Bible), symbolic of the light from above; the square, symbolic of the light within man; and the compass, symbolic of fraternity, the light around man. The Masonic ritual, as articulated in the Antient Charges (1723), expresses a commitment to the creation of 'the Temple of Human Love, the foundations of which are Wisdom, Strength and Beauty'. Flynn's "by God" is his own Irish interpolation: the Masonic formula dictated tolerance under 'the Great Architect of the Universe'."

Flynn's cryptic language appears inspired by the secrecy of the order—"They're as close as damn it"—and that reserve extends to Bloom himself, who does not once speak or think of himself as a mason. This is in keeping with an oath that new members of the order must take, pledging never to reveal any of "the hidden mysteries of Ancient Free Masonry." Flynn appears to allude to this oath when he tells Byrne that Bloom will never put anything "in black and white," and Bloom murmurs some of the words of the oath at the end of Circe. At several points, though, people do refer to others as masons. In Cyclops the Citizen sees Bloom pacing outside the pub and growls, "What's that bloody freemason doing... prowling up and down outside?" In Penelope Molly recalls how he made progress landing singing gigs for her in churches "till the jesuits found out he was a freemason." And in Lotus Eaters Bloom thinks that King Edward is sometimes shown dressed up as "A mason." Since 1875 Prince Albert Edward had been the Grand Master of English freemasons, and in Circe he rises up "robed as a grand elect perfect and sublime mason with trowel and apron, marked made in Germany."

People ask to join masonic lodges, and most lodges do not require a specific religious affiliation. The emphasis is on admitting people of good moral character and encouraging members to do good in the world. Nevertheless, most freemasons in Ireland have come from the Protestant population, and at the time of the novel the Catholic church had long been embroiled in disputes with European masonic lodges, accusing them of promoting atheism. An 18 September 2017 article by Mark Phelan in the Irish Times, "Local brotherhood – An Irishman’s Diary on the freemasonry controversy in 1920s Ireland," observes that the widely read Catholic Bulletin described Ireland's freemasons as "a naked stripping gang of alien adventurers" who "rolled like lava over this fair land."

As he is burned at the stake in Circe Bloom is called "Charitable Mason." Nosey Flynn insinuates that, as a member of a despised minority, he may have been thinking less of charitable action than of material advancement when he associated himself with prominent Protestant citizens. Perhaps so, but any such advancement would have come at the cost of making himself even more of an outsider in the insular world of Dublin Catholics. Conspiracy theories about the freemasons have often involved anti-Semitic slurs, and Flynn seems to be engaging in both kinds of character assassination when he asserts that Bloom will not put anything "in black and white." In Penelope Molly thinks, "well have him coming home with the sack soon out of the Freeman too like the rest on account of those Sinner Fein or the freemasons." In Hades Bloom looks at the formerly Protestant Tom Kernan with the same kind of guarded assessment that he gave the Jewish butcher in Calypso: "Secret eyes, secretsearching eyes. Mason, I think: not sure."

In at least one important way, Freemasonry itself is insular and exclusive: its lodges do not accept women. But there have been a few exceptions. Nosey Flynn luridly tells the story of a woman who "hid herself in a clock to find out what they do be doing. But be damned but they smelt her out and swore her in on the spot a master mason. That was one of the saint Legers of Doneraile." Most of this report actually is true. Elizabeth Aldworth, née Doneraile, the daughter of Arthur St. Leger, the 1st Viscount Doneraile of County Cork, was known in her own time as "The Lady Freemason." She walked in masonic processions with her apron and other insignia, and her portrait hangs in various Irish lodges.

According to contemporary accounts, a lodge meeting was held in her father's house ca. 1710-12 while it was under construction. Elizabeth, then in her late teens, had fallen asleep in the library next door and was awakened by sounds from a hole in a loose brick wall. She removed some bricks and watched. When she was caught, the masons decided to initiate her to protect the secrecy of their rites. The story of the clock is apocryphal, as is the "master mason" flourish. (Freemasonry has three levels of initiation, derived from the medieval craft guilds: Entered Apprentice, Journeyman or Fellowcraft, and Master Mason.)

JH 2022
 Square and compasses on the gates of the Freemasons' Hall in Bournemouth, England, in a 2015 photograph by Rwendland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.