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Wednesday, March 06, 2024

The Story of Ireland's 'Lady Freemason' Coming To Television

Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth, Ireland's Lady Freemason

by Christopher Hodapp

The famous tale of Ireland's first 'Lady Freemason,' Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth, was dramatized in print three years ago by Irish-American author Kathleen Aldworth Foster. Her novel, Doneraile Court: The Story of The Lady Freemason,  was framed as an historical romance/mystery with some Masonic intrigue thrown in. Now, an Irish production company has announced that Foster's novel will soon be made into a television series.

Doneraile Court today (photo: Tuatha)

The story of young Elizabeth's initiation into her father's Masonic lodge has been written about for almost three centuries, and it's been a part of the fabric of the Grand Lodge of Ireland's history from its beginnings in 1725. Her father, Arthur St Leger, the first Viscount Doneraile, would eventually become Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1740. But Elizabeth's tale predates the grand lodge and takes place back between 1710 and 1712. 

At the time, a lodge met regularly in Doneraile Court, the stately home of the St. Legers (the house still stands today and is open to the public for tours). The meeting that night was presided over by her father, Lord Doneraile, and her brother — the 3rd Viscount, father of the 4th Viscount, Grand Master — was also present.

Young Elizabeth was an avid reader, and the home's library was an extensive one. It also happened to be the room next door to the large salon where the Masonic lodge held its meetings. At the time of the story, some interior renovations to the house were being made, and a former passage doorway between the two rooms was being blocked in with bricks in preparation of being plastered over and painted.

A floorplan of the house showing the library, the lodge room, 
and the blocked passage between them. 
From a paper by Edward Conder for Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076

Lodge members had been arriving all afternoon. Everyone assembled in the lodge room, the doors were closed, and the family butler was stationed outside as Tyler. 

Elizabeth had been in the library that afternoon, but she had dozed off once the sun went down outside. The sounds of the lodge meeting opening in the room next door awakened her. Once she realized what she was hearing, curiosity overcame the young woman, and she crept over to where the workmen had temporarily stacked bricks over the old doorway in order to hear what was being said.

From a book based on her memoirs published in 1811, comes the account of what happened next:
The sound of voices in the next room restored her to consciousness and from her position behind the loosely placed bricks of the dividing wall she easily realised that something unusual was taking place in the next room. The light shining through the unfilled spaces in the temporary wall attracted her attention and, prompted by a not unnatural curiosity, Miss St. Leger appears to have removed one or more of the loose bricks, and thus was easily enabled to watch the proceedings of the Lodge.

For some time her interest in what was transpiring was sufficiently powerful to hold her spell-bound; the quietness of her mind remained undisturbed for a considerable period and it was not until she realised the solemnity of the responsibilities undertaken by the candidate that she understood the terrible consequences of her action.

The wish to hide her secret by making good her retreat took full possession of her thoughts, for it must be fully understood that although she was perfectly aware that her father's Lodge was held at the house, she had no idea on entering the library that on that evening a meeting was about to be held in the adjoining room. Her only means of exit was through the Lodge Room and we can well understand what must have been the feeling of the young girl when she realised that the only way to escape was through the very room where the concluding part of the Second Degree was being given. The door being at the far end of the room, she had sufficient resolution to attempt her escape that way. With light and trembling step, and almost suspended breath, she glided along, unobserved by the Lodge, laid her hand on the handle and, softly opening the door, before her stood her father's butler, the grim and faithful Tyler, with drawn sword in his hand, guarding the entrance. Her shriek alarmed the Lodge and the Brethren, having carried the young girl back into the library, learned what had occurred.
The Freemasons at the time took Masonic secrecy VERY seriously, and the members were horrified that their meeting had been gate-crashed by this nosey girl — or, at least they sure SOUNDED like they were taking it seriously. A discussion immediately ensued as to what sort of fate awaited poor Elizabeth. Even Lord Doneraile pronounced that they had just two choices left to them: either Elizabeth would have to be - regretfully - executed, lest she blab their secrets to the profane world; or they would just have to break down and initiate her into the lodge, thereby requiring her to properly take the obligations of the degrees in order and ensuring her silence. The vote was taken, the ayes prevailed, and Elizabeth was immediately initiated as an Entered Apprentice, and passed to be a Fellow of the Craft (there were only the two degrees at this time — the Master Mason degree wouldn't come along in England until the late 1720s, and it took a bit for it to spread to other jurisdictions).

Foster's novelized version embroiders the story with some local spookiness, gypsies, witchcraft, and, of course, some dreamy romantic passages between Elizabeth and a dashing young lodge member named Richard Aldworth. In reality, Elizabeth did indeed participate in the lodge for many years, marching with her lodge brethren in public ceremonies and parades while proudly wearing her Masonic apron. Just five months after the incident at the lodge, Elizabeth really did marry Richard Aldworth.

Plaque erected at St. Finbarre's Cathedral by the Freemasons of Cork. 
From the Irish Masonic History website.

According to her obituary published in the Leinster Journal upon her death in 1780, Elizabeth was ‘The only woman in the world who had the honour of being made a Freemason', and today the Grand Lodge of Ireland proudly displays her painting in their Dublin headquarters. She's still referred to as "Ireland's ONLY Female Freemason," which isn't exactly true, since there are female Masonic lodges and mixed-gender Co-Masons at work in that country. But she IS historically the only recognized female member of the Grand Lodge of Ireland's otherwise all-male fraternity.

Now comes the announcement that Kathleen Foster's novel will soon become a limited TV series produced by Great Island Productions, which is based in Cork. From the Irish Star website, "Ireland's only female Freemason was a 'courageous woman' who blazed a trail" by Martha Brennan:
Mark Kenny, CEO of Great Island Productions, said: "This is not just another story we're bringing to life. This is a captivating narrative about a trailblazing Irish woman that’s a thriller, mystery, and love story set against the backdrop of Doneraile Court in County Cork.
"Great Island's CFO Jim Robinson added: “Our partnership with Kathleen underscores our shared passion for engaging storytelling and historical intrigue. As plans unfold for adapting The Story of The Lady Freemason into a TV series, audiences can look forward to experiencing a unique blend of drama and history that also addresses issues of gender and inequality still relatable today.”

No information yet as to what network, station or service will actually air the series, biu it's still early in the development phase. 

For more about the real story of Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth, have a look at the Irish Masonic History website HERE. 

And for more about Kathleen Foster's novel and how this New Jersey author became fascinated by Elizabeth;s story, have a look at this article on the Irish Star website HERE.


  1. There re lots of good masonic stories and one wishes grand lodgres would promote them more enthusiastically.

  2. Brother Indian Chief's Joseph Brant saving the life of a captured brother enemy, and the brave brother who died thwarting the attempted killing of Brother Harry Truman come to mind, and are examples of incidents that grand lodges might do more with.


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