One of the many endearing qualities of Freemasonry is the lasting friendships that can develop from mere acquaintances at lodge meetings and social get-togethers. Yet others arise from chance encounters under extremely improbable circumstances; as if by preordained divine intervention. For instance, what is the likelihood that, during a casual fishing trip in the middle of a huge loch in Ireland, the catch of the day turns out to be a group of influential Irish Masons? Even less believable is that a lodge meeting is convened on a barge in the middle of such a vast loch? Well, both events happened and not a single pig was observed circling overhead!
On first learning the tale one could be forgiven for suspecting that the events are fictional or an exaggeration. There was however a series of amazing coincidences that graphically illustrates that fact is often stranger than fiction.
Central to the narrative are Ian Smith, his brother Peter, Peter’s son Paul, and Michael Fisher; four very ordinary members of Emblem Lodge No 6727. Embarking on a fishing trip on Lough Derg, the largest lake within the Shannon river basin in Ireland, this intrepid ensemble of dubious mariners had hired a modest leisure craft, one of Dinky Toys’ more substantial models. They planned to enjoy a week of fishing, relaxing, and drinking (not necessarily prioritising in that order) and Masonry was far from their minds on that dank morning of May 2005. Fun and relaxation were the order of the week. Ian, a soberly, dependable and efficient type of chap contrasts with his effervescent and outgoing sibling Peter who is one of those people who on occasions appears to allow his mind to wander off for a lunch break. The differences in personalities were to prove significant to the outcomes of the trip.
As with all compelling tales of intrigue, a secondary strand to the saga was steadily unravelling elsewhere, in this case at Freemasons’ Hall in Dublin.
The May meeting of Leinster Lodge No 141 is traditionally a social, or in modern parlance, a ‘bonding’ meeting for the members. In 2005 it was decided that, for a change, rather than a regular meeting at the Masonic hall, the May meeting should be convened on a large house-boat barge in the middle of Lough Derg. Meticulous plans were drawn up by the hard working secretary of the lodge Douglas Grey and, in addition to willing volunteers from within the lodge, a full crew were amassed by press-ganging masters of other lodges; Mel Goodchild of Victoria Lodge No 4, Alan Gill of Commercial Lodge No 245, and Michael Troughton-Smith of Clontarf Lodge No 249. Duly assembled, the brethren set off for Lough Derg.
Named the 70 M, the barge was kindly loaned by Geoffrey Lovegrove, one of the members of Leinster lodge. Skipper Lovegrove’s crew consisted of 15 dedicated and upright Masons who, unlike the four fun-seeking frolickers from Emblem lodge, had organised a cultural tour that took in Kilgarvin harbour, the marina at Terryglass, and Portumna Castle and its splendid gardens.
On arriving at Portumna, Henry Robinson, a seafarer of some note, presented skipper Lovegrove with a distinctive Masonic pennant which was fittingly raised to the top of the mast of the barge. Once the pennant was proudly displayed, the crew set course from Portumna to Kilgarvin harbour on the first leg of the cultural tour. All was shipshape and Bristol fashion but on approaching their allotted mooring at Kilgarvin, the barge’s progress was thwarted by a ragtag hire boat crewed by four half-cut foreigners. This was the first encounter between the two crafts. Skipper Lovegrove proceeded to the bow of the barge and requested the hire boat to come about to port to allow the 70 M to dock at its mooring. At this juncture there was confusion in the communications; the Irish accent or nautical terms causing muddle amongst the landlubber crew of the leisure craft. A few additional choice words and non-Masonic signs from skipper Lovegrove, and no doubt the sight of a 70 tonnes barge continuing on its course and looming up on them, our valiant seafarers in the hire boat were persuaded to move and the 70 M gently glided into its resting place at the quayside.
Shortly afterwards the Emblem sea dogs noticed the Masonic pennant wafting atop the 70 M’s mast. They were intrigued by its presence but the barge’s crew had hastily departed on their cultural jaunt and consequently Ian, Peter, Michael and Paul were unable to satisfy their curiosity and, disappointed, upped anchor and set sail to do a spot of fishing.
Completing the first stage of their cultural tour, the 70 M crew returned and proceeded on course for leg two, an inspection of Terryglass marina. Having drooled over the beautiful craft moored in the marina, it was on to Portumna castle and gardens to admire the ongoing restoration work on this magnificent building. Having fully satisfied their appetite for culture, the crew withdrew to convene a lodge meeting aboard the 70 M in the middle of Lough Derg, to commence at the first bell of the Angelus.
Firmly anchored and composing themselves in the tranquillity of the lake, the crew awaited the first bell to signal the start-time of this special lodge meeting. But the silence was to be shattered by the deafening honks and howls emanating from a hire boat that had followed them into the centre of the lake and was now circling and hooting around the barge.
The Emblem squad had spotted the barge departing Portumna and Peter felt compelled to enquire about the Masonic pennant on its mast. Ian, ever respectful of the privacy of the barge’s occupants urged a tactful retreat but impetuous Peter ordered full steam ahead in hot pursuit of the mysterious Masonic mariners. Ian was convinced that Peter’s mind had yet again wandered off for another lunch break but conceded to his dogged stance.
Loudly ahoying the skipper, Peter enquired as to the reason for the Masonic pennant and was informed that a lodge meeting was just about to start. On notifying the crew on the barge that the louts in the hire boat were also Masons, secretary of Leinster lodge Douglas Grey immediately invited them aboard to join the meeting, provided that they were properly tested and vouched. All was found to be in order and the hire craft was lashed alongside the 70 M.
Members of Leinster lodge donned the aprons, collars and jewels of their office and the other Irish Masons were attired in their regalia. Lodge furnishings were kindly provided by skipper Lovegrove who had turned three magnificent wooden candlesticks, a beautiful maul for the WM and superbly sculptured square and compasses. Unfortunately time had not permitted skipper Lovegrove to complete the remaining lodge furnishings and some improvisation was required. The wardens were provided with tall green recycled glass containers as mauls and the deacons were equipped with plastic dinghy paddles as wands of their offices.
There were now 20 brothers for the meeting and the modest sized saloon of the 70 M was rather cramped. The officers of the lodge processed in from the sleeping quarters and took their rightful places in the lodge. Douglas Grey informed the meeting that he had obtained a special warrant from the Assistant Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland to hold the meeting and this was prominently displayed in the makeshift lodge.
As the meeting progressed it was suddenly interrupted by a loud ahoy from an approaching vessel. The skipper of a large passenger carrying ferry, The Shannon Princess, on seeing a large house boat barge anchored in the middle of the lake with a raggedy hire boat alongside and nobody on deck, had assumed that one or both vessels were in trouble. A few of the brethren had to rapidly remove their regalia, race on deck and assure the concerned skipper that all was well.
On conclusion of the meeting, the 70 M returned to its berth at Portumna with the hire craft in tow and all the brethren tucked in to an al fresco festive barbeque of steak, sausages, salad, hot chips and lashings of wine and beer. The customary raffle was conducted and Michael Fisher performed the traditional English tyler’s toast, much to the appreciation of the Irish brethren who had never heard it before.
Since this chance encounter between the four members of Emblem lodge and their Irish cousins from Leinster lodge, the friendship has continued to grow over the past 10 years with brethren from Leinster attending Emblem lodge’s installation meeting in Blackpool each year and members of Emblem lodge reciprocating.
Of course other things have also happened during the course of time. Perhaps the most significant thing is that Douglas Grey, the industrious secretary of Leinster lodge in 2005 is now the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. It is amazing what can happen as a result of meeting a few Masons from Blackpool.