Irish Secret Societies

Updated on July 27, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues.

Scratch just beneath the surface of Irish life, and the inquisitive will discover a parallel world of secret oath-bound societies. Not surprisingly, in Ireland, the many secret societies are generally divided along sectarian lines either constitutionally or by practice. It would be hard to quantify how many members the various secret societies would have, but it is thought that they would still be substantial, even though most commentators, and indeed many within the organizations themselves, agree that overall membership is falling rapidly.

Historically speaking, secret societies in Ireland are far from a modern phenomenon, and many of them, like the Molly Maguires and the Hearts of Oak, were transported across the Atlantic with the Irish diaspora. The most prominent of the secret societies still active in Irish life are the:

  • Freemasons
  • Orange Order
  • Apprentice Boys of Derry
  • Royal Black Preceptory
  • Independent Orange Order
  • Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes
  • Ancient Order of Hibernians
  • Knights of Saint Columbanus
  • Irish National Foresters

Secret Oaths and Secret Rituals

Members of the Royal Black Preceptory, traditionally viewed as the most elitist of the loyal orders. Their main public demonstration is on the last Saturday in August which is referred to as Black Saturday.
Members of the Royal Black Preceptory, traditionally viewed as the most elitist of the loyal orders. Their main public demonstration is on the last Saturday in August which is referred to as Black Saturday.
Eddie McIlwaine, a member of the Shankill Butchers gang, is a senior member of the Orange Order. While marrying a Catholic prohibits membership of the Loyal Orders, multiple convictions for the murder & torture of Catholics is no bar to membership
Eddie McIlwaine, a member of the Shankill Butchers gang, is a senior member of the Orange Order. While marrying a Catholic prohibits membership of the Loyal Orders, multiple convictions for the murder & torture of Catholics is no bar to membership

Protestant Secret Societies

The Loyal Orders

The Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory, the Apprentice Boys and the Independent Orange Order are exclusively Protestant, far-right sectarian secret societies, which are collectively referred to as the 'Loyal Orders'. Catholics are excluded from membership of these supremacist organizations, as are those who have ever been married to Catholics. Even Catholic converts to the Reformed churches are prohibited from joining any of the Loyal Orders.

The Loyal Orders are strongly linked in structure and rituals to Scottish Rite Freemasonry, with many members enjoying joint membership with Masonic lodges. Even a casual perusal of the Loyal Orders' regalia, banners, collarettes and indeed their rituals, such as those connected to their various degrees, reveals many, if not all, of the shared symbols of Freemasonry. The Loyal Orders were once extremely influential in the North of Ireland with a membership that included the so-called pillars of the ruling class, such as the judiciary, industrialists and so-called 'big house Unionism' but in recent times the rank and file of the Loyal Orders are composed of a distinctly deferential working-class, with a petit-bourgeois leadership. It is well documented that the Loyal Orders have close links to prescribed Loyalist paramilitaries.

Conversely, for organizations that ostensibly promote the reformed churches and even fundamentalist Christianity, the rituals of the Loyal Orders are cult-like and are rooted in Masonic occultism. For instance, on completion of the various masonic type 'degrees' in the Royal Black Preceptory, the initiate is confronted in a darkened room by members holding human bones and a skull with a warning of a bloodcurdling fate for those who betray the sect's secrets. Similarly, initiates to the Orange Order often take part in a ceremony called 'Riding the Goat' which despite its satanic undertones, has been described as similar to the rituals of humiliation and fealty that Freemasons must undergo at their various 'degrees'.

The Freemasons

Freemasonry in Ireland, especially in the north is almost exclusively Protestant and traditionally Unionist. Scottish Rite Freemasonry is strongly linked to the Loyal Orders and in practice, they are viewed as being a rich man's Loyal Order' which provides yet another reason why Catholics would be discouraged from participation in Masonic lodges. At one time Catholics faced excommunication if they became Freemasons based on edicts issued by the Vatican because of the alleged occult and Luciferian rituals at the heart of Freemasonry but in recent times there have been a trickle of Catholic initiates. Allegations of masonic intrigue and unfair influence in Irish society are similar to those globally, except in the case of Ireland there is usually a strong sectarian angle.

The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes

The RAOB is a masonic type organization, close to York Rite Freemasonry. There are only 7 RAOB premises in Ireland, all in the north of the country and as an organization, they are almost exclusively Protestant and Loyalist. Rightly or wrongly the 'Buffs' are viewed as a poor man's Freemasonry and their lodges' locations overseas appear to correlate closely with British imperial and army postings. Their Irish headquarters and associated club-rooms are in Church Street in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter and it is generally viewed as a Loyalist drinking club. There are accounts on the Internet that new initiates to the 'Buffs' are placed in a circle blindfolded as the assembled membership hop around them pretending to be kangaroos while shouting 'We'll Chase the Buffalo'.

The AOH and INF

Ancient Order of Hibernians
Ancient Order of Hibernians
An INF medal
An INF medal

Catholic Secretive Societies

The Ancient Order of Hibernians

The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is perhaps Ireland's best known and most visible exclusively Catholic secret society. Even at their period of maximum influence when their membership was said to be 64,000 strong in the first half of the 20th century, they never enjoyed the position of influence that their sectarian mirror-image in the Loyal Orders commanded. The Irish Republican Socialist, James Connolly, referred to them as the 'Ancient Order of Hooligans' because of their perceived rowdiness and reactionary world view. The AOH in Ireland has been a separate organization from the AOH in North America, following a split that saw the administration of the AOH in Ireland coming under the quaintly named 'Board of Erin.' The AOH parade primarily on St Patrick's Day and on the 15th of August, the feast of the Assumption. They were closely linked to the old northern Nationalist Party and its leadership has been historically hostile to Irish Republicanism, not least due to the latter's secular and socialistic origins and ideological position. AOH halls can still be seen scattered about in rural nationalist areas of the north of Ireland, especially in parts of South Derry, Antrim and Tyrone.

The Order of Knights of Saint Columbanus

The Order of Knights of Saint Columbanus is an exclusively male, Catholic sectarian secretive, rather than secret, society. The 'Knights' are commonly viewed as an Irish Catholic version of Freemasonry who indulge in similar protectionist or counter practices to the Masonic order and who have undue influence in political and business affairs. The 'Knights' have a headquarters in Dublin at Ely House and are organized on an all-Ireland basis. Its leadership and ideology is anti-Socialist and counter-progressive.

The Irish National Foresters

The Irish National Foresters (INF) is not a constitutionally sectarian society but in practice, their membership is almost exclusively Catholic and nationalist in worldview. The INF was founded in 1877 as a breakaway from the Ancient Order of Foresters, a type of benevolent society which was popular in many countries before the introduction of a welfare state. The INF is more or less in decline but one can find INF halls and clubs in the north of Ireland, especially in county Down. Their leader is referred to as Chief Ranger, members parade in green sashes and carry banners similar in design to the AOH but it must be stressed are not of the same overtly sectarian nature. INF halls and clubs are used by all sections of the community and are by far the most progressive of the aforementioned secret or secretive societies.

Open to the Public

The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB) club in Church Street, Belfast
The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB) club in Church Street, Belfast
The INF club in William Street, Newry
The INF club in William Street, Newry
Clonard AOH club in West Belfast
Clonard AOH club in West Belfast

Freemasonry and the Catholic Church

There are, of course, more obscure oath-bound societies functioning at various levels in Ireland, some are Grail-based or affiliated to the more obscure Loyal Orders, such as the Royal Arch Purple. Modernity and the march of secularism has taken it's toll on most of Ireland's secret societies yet some still wield influence on Irish life. In the North, the Loyal Orders still operate as a Loyalist 'broderbund' and despite their declining membership their supremacist parading has been at the centre of serious conflict including, arguably, the period known as The Troubles. Catholic secret-societies are accepted to be in terminal decline largely due to re-alignments in nationalist politics, although the 'Knights' are much more difficult to quantify. The Loyal Orders, the Foresters, the AOH, the RAOB, and Freemasons currently operate licensed bars in many of their clubs, lodges or premises which may guarantee their longevity, especially when alcohol is competitively priced!

With the growth of the Internet and proliferation of masonic/Illuminati conspiracies in common circulation, no doubt aided by Dan Brown's novels, Freemasonry has found itself the topic of intense interest and critique internationally. Ordinary people seem fascinated with the obscure occult rituals that are reportedly performed by the largely middle-class, middle-aged, exclusively male membership within the precincts of the multitude of Masonic halls, which are in almost every town in the north of Ireland. Freemasonry's governing body in Ireland, like elsewhere globally has attempted to deflate many of the allegations of masonic intrigue by creating websites stressing their positives and repeating the mantra that they are a 'society with secrets', rather than a secret society, whose membership is, in all senses of the word, on the level. Irrespective of their recent public relations drive, Irish Catholics who involve themselves with Freemasonry are effectively excommunicated in the eyes of the Church and are, at best, distrusted by their local communities.

The rituals of Freemasonry
The rituals of Freemasonry

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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