Engineer Sebastian Heinz on why he fell in love with Northern Ireland and his joy at joining the Freemasons
'When I arrived in Belfast from Germany my first house was on the Shankill Road and it was interesting to see bands parade outside my front door... joining the Freemasons has been a total joy and given me a real sense of belonging'
Sebastian Heinz had never heard of Belfast and had to Google the city when the chance arose to apply for a PhD scholarship at Queen's University 11 years ago. When the German-born product design engineer arrived for his interview at the university back in 2009, it was to a more depressed city which was in the early throes of regeneration.
He knew nothing about the lay of the land here and when he spotted a house with cheap rent in the heart of the loyalist Shankill Road, he snapped up the lease.
It was the height of the marching season and Sebastian, now 36, could only watch in wonder as endless processions of local bands and Orangemen paraded past his new front door.
It was an introduction which endeared him to the city and Northern Ireland which he has now made his home.
Not only has he settled with his partner Lara, a teacher in Comber, but he is a proud dad to 18-month-old Mavyn and Romy (four months).
So determined has he been to embrace his new life here that he has embedded himself in his local community by joining the Freemasons.
Intrigue about the age-old fraternity and a desire to make new friends saw him apply for membership of the organisation which for many years has been shrouded in secrecy.
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One of a growing new wave of young members signing up to the ancient order which has been undergoing a revival in recent years, Sebastian is keen to sing its praises and shatter some of the long-held myths which surround it.
He admits: "Yes some of the rituals and traditions could be regarded as a little weird but also they are perfectly fine and really not that odd when you think about it.
"It is no different from bringing friends together in your home to dance around the record player in your living room.
"That's a ritual and it's just little things people do when they come together and there is nothing really crazy or odd about it.
"They do have an interesting approach and there are certain steps and traditions on how things are proposed and who speaks and how meetings are run but that just makes it interesting and even thought provoking."
Sebastian is originally from a small town called Weissach outside Stuttgart, a region known for its engineering.
His parents still live there and now holiday here in Northern Ireland every year, and he has a brother who lives in France.
One of the reasons he fell in love with Northern Ireland was what he saw as a more laid-back approach to life here compared to his native Germany.
He says: "Even though my home town is small there are some big automotive engineering research centres there and half the population in the town would be engineers.
"There is a lot of wealth in the area and this expectation that everyone there is supposed to do well and work towards a nice home and a well respected job and it is a pressurising society.
"I found it a very confined way of living."
It was while studying for a masters degree in London that he heard about PhD scholarships at Queen's University Belfast.
Encouraged by one of his tutors to apply, he came here with no intentions of making Northern Ireland his home.
His introduction to the city was colourful to say the least and he now loves the craic and the more relaxed vibe of Belfast.
He recalls: "To be fair I didn't even know where Belfast was and I had to look it up online. Obviously I kind of knew from the past about the Troubles but I knew nothing else about Northern Ireland.
"When I arrived for my interview I had to walk from the Europa Hotel to Queen's and that was my first impression of Northern Ireland. It was very different then to now, very run down and depressed, which I didn't mind so much.
"The first place I lived was a tiny house which was only £270 a month to rent on the Shankill Road.
"I had no insight into the city at all and I lived there for two years with no problems. I got on with my neighbours and it was interesting to have the bands parade outside my front door as I had never seen anything like that in Germany."
Specialising in interactive online design, he worked on his PhD at The Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen's developing interactive music tools known as Patchblocks. This led him to abandon his PhD to set up his own design company.
After becoming a dad for the first time last year he sold his company to an English firm which now employs him as a product design engineer.
Fatherhood has also provided a new calming influence.
"Life is a bit more focused now that we have a family," Sebastian says. "Before, I was doing all sorts of different things and going to festivals and parties but I don't do that anymore.
"I got into the music scene in Belfast and loved the culture and the people who I found to be really down to earth.
"My partner Lara is more calm than me and has made me a little less crazy - I'm a much calmer person now, especially with having a family to look after."
And now he has a whole new group of friends through joining the Belfast Freemasons and is keen to promote the group to other young men.
Freemasonry is one of the world's oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations.
It teaches self-knowledge and with the motto 'making good men better' members are expected to be of high moral standing and are encouraged to speak openly about Freemasonry.
Joining, as he explains, is straightforward and he says he has never looked back since becoming a member of the Belfast order in 2016.
Sebastian says: "I was keen to find out more about what it meant to be a Freemason - to be honest, I was intrigued by all the stories and wanted to know more.
"I decided to drop them an email saying that I was interested in what this ancient organisation had to offer and they promptly responded suggesting we meet for a coffee and a chat so I could find out more. I couldn't have been made to feel more welcome.
"Three Freemasons met with me in a Belfast coffee shop and there was no cloak and dagger stuff that I think many expect from Freemasonry.
"We simply chatted and got to know one another, after which I decided I wanted to join and they invited me to come along to their lodge which meets monthly in Belfast's Arthur Square Hall. I had absolutely no prior knowledge or family connections in Freemasonry, I wasn't encouraged to join, I was really genuinely interested and wanted to be a part of an organisation that exists in order to help others.
"The bonus is that I get to meet so many people from all backgrounds and of all ages - we meet once a month and there is a more formal meeting which is always followed by a more informal social 'Festive Board' - I enjoy the company and the craic is great!
"Normally I'm scruffy and spend my life in casual clothes, so it's actually really nice to have to make an effort sometimes and put a suit on or even dust off the black tie - if it wasn't for Freemasonry I'd never get the opportunity."
Friendship and making new contacts from different backgrounds has been the one thing which he has valued most about joining the masons.
He also has the reassurance of knowing that if anything was to happen to him, the masons would provide support to his partner and children.
He adds: "It's comforting to know that if anything was to happen to me, my partner and my children would have the full support of the Freemasons. Obviously I hope this never comes to pass but it is reassuring all the same.
"The Freemasons do great work with widows of Freemasons and also their children. This just touches on some of the charitable work they do and it's something I'd like to get more involved with. Being a Freemason has opened the door for me to meet so many people I would never have had the pleasure of crossing paths with.
"It's a total joy to be a member and to associate with so many good men - I've made some great friends and its lovely to have a support network here, it's much like having an extended family standing with you! I have a sense of belonging and community which is great.
"The organisation is really coming into the 21st century, gone are the days where you need to be invited to join.
"For anyone interested, a simple internet search and an email will open doors to meeting many new people.
"You might think that at 36 years old I am the exception to the rule, but we are seeing so many younger people reaching out to our lodge that we have exceeded capacity and are now referring them to some of the other lodges - it's great to see and I'll look forward to being a part of this organisation for many years to come."
Belfast lodge is full but membership is open at the Freemasons of Antrim. For more information, visit www.pglantrim.org