by Bill Browne with the Cork Newsletter
A CHANCE meeting in the shadow of the great pyramids in Egypt has culminated in the launch last weekend amid the stately surroundings of Doneraile House of a new book about the first and only woman to be initiated into the Irish Freemasons Society.
At the launch of ‘Doneraile Court – The Story of the Lady Freemason’ its author, American journalist Kathleen Aldworth Foster, read excerpts from the book and spoke about her 15-year journey researching and writing it.
While officially classified as a work of historical fiction, the book is based around the extraordinary life of Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth, the daughter of Arthur St Leger, 1st Viscount Doneraile who was a Freemason.
The story goes that in 1712 the 17-year-old fell asleep while reading a book in the library of her family home, the stately Doneraile Court in the heart of north Cork.
She was awoken by voices coming from an adjacent room and, whether by accident or design, witnessed a number of men, including her father who was Grand Master of the Lodge and her brother, taking part in what was understood to be a secretive initiation ceremony.
Intrigued, she continued to eavesdrop on proceedings before attempting to steal away unnoticed. However, much to the consternation of those present she was rumbled, presenting them with a never before experienced quandary.
Legend has it that one of those present spoke up informing Lord Doneraile of the rule that should their secret be discovered, and members of the Lodge be identified by an outsider, ‘that person must die’.
Lord Doneraile pleaded for the life of his daughter, who in turn made a solemn vow that she would never speak of what she had seen.
Elizabeth’s fate hung in the balance until her father came up with a solution – that she be made a member of the Lodge. While some members remained unhappy at the suggestions, Elizabeth was spared and initiated into the Lodge.
Following her ‘emergency’ initiation, Elizabeth became a well-known figure within Masonic circles, making public appearances in full Freemason regalia.
Speaking at the book launch Kathleen recalled the first time she ever heard about the ‘Lady Freemason’.
“I was visiting the pyramids of Giza in 2000 and I met a man who was studying the Freemasons ties to Egypt and he told me that I shared the name Aldworth with the first Lady Freemason. That was the first time I had become aware of that,” said Kathleen.
Her curiosity aroused, Kathleen began researching Freemasonry and her Aldworth family connections and discovered Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth was from Cork.
In 2006 she made her first visit to Doneraile, where the idea for the book first took root.
“I had so many questions about Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth. I wanted to know all about her and the ritual that she had seen. I looked for a book about it but could not find one,” said Kathleen.
She initially set out to write a non-fiction book about Elizabeth, but changed her mind as there were so many different versions behind her story and not enough hard facts to fill a book.
“It became clear to me that it would have to be a book of historical fiction, otherwise it would have been little more than a short pamphlet,” said Kathleen.
The book cleverly interweaves what is known about Elizabeth with imagined conversations and incidents, creating a vivid interpretation of her life and the circumstances surrounding her initiation into the Freemasons.
“As there were so many different versions of Elizabeth’s life , I had to let my imagination take over. The little bits of information that I did get from local people were really helpful, allowing me to incorporate them into fictionalised elements of the book,” said Kathleen.
Describing the process of researching and writing the book as a “real labour of love”, Kathleen said she was thrilled to be able to officially launch the book at Doneraile House - the very place where the story of the ‘Lady Freemason’ began.
“There is a sense that the whole project has come full-circle,. I really felt it was important to launch the book at the place where Elizabeth’s Freemasonry journey started. So being able to launch the book here really is a dream come true for me,” said Kathleen.
Kathleen said she has been overwhelmed by the reaction to the book from people who have read it, particularly from the people of Doneraile itself.
“A lot of people love historical fiction books, especially when they can identify with the story. I think tourists will also like the book as it gives a broad picture of this beautiful part of Cork and of Doneraile House and its wonderful surroundings,” said Kathleen.
“I also believe that it will appeal to Freemasons, not just in Ireland but across the globe as Elizabeth St Leger Aldworth’s holds a very special place within Freemasonry. There is even a lodge named after her in Brazil,” she added.
Copies of ‘Doneraile Court – The Story of the Lady Freemason’ can be purchased at www.donerailecourt.com or local outlets including Philip’s Bookshop in Mallow.