'Freemasonry isn't a secret organisation but an organisation with secrets, and I have some Catholic friends who are very good members'
John McLernon has just been appointed Provincial Grand Master of Antrim. The former operations director at Bushmills Distillery tells Stephanie Bell that he wants to dispel some of the mystery surrounding the Masons and attract younger members from all walks of life
With its unusual handshakes and secret rituals, there has always been an air of mystery about Freemasonry, but not any more if local man John McLernon has his way.
John (75), from Ballymoney, has just been appointed Provincial Grand Master of Antrim with ambitious plans to expand the organisation "for a new generation" and shatter some of the long-held myths which surround it.
Well-known as former operations director at Bushmills Distillery where he retired in 2015 after 25 years with the company, the family man has been a Freemason for more than 50 years.
John lives in Ballymoney with his wife Jennifer (74), a retired cook, and has two sons, Ian (45) and Paul (42), and three grandchildren.
He insists the organisation, which dates back to the 18th century and which has long fascinated outsiders, is as relevant today as it ever was.
He says: "Being a Freemason is something I am immensely proud of, and I want more men to feel the joy, friendship and support that I have been so fortunate to receive from my fellow Freemasons over the years.
"It is my intent to encourage more people to come and talk to us, to find out what it really means to be a Freemason and to see that this is an organisation to be embraced, not one to fear.
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"I see big changes in our future, and we must embrace them wholeheartedly to ensure the future of Freemasonry is safe in the hands of the next generation.
"Our future lies in opening the doors and dispelling the myth that we are a secret organisation."
Indeed, rather than refer to it as a secret organisation, John prefers to describe it as "an organisation with secrets".
Freemasonry is one of the world's oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations. There are over 5,000 members in Antrim alone, 30,000 across Ireland, and six million worldwide.
John insists the organisation is very much alive and well and eager to grow into the future, encouraging younger members to continue on with the age-old tradition of "making good men better".
He has devoted most of his time to voluntary work through the Masons since he retired 14 years ago.
John started his career as a factory manager in Ballymoney Foods and then moved to the globally-renowned Bushmills Distillery where he worked for 25 years, the last 12 as its operations manager.
He says: "Bushmills was a great company to work for and I spent 25 very happy years there. It has a worldwide reputation and I met people from all over the world during my time there."
He is also a familiar face on the local motor sport circuit, where he competed in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. He is a former chairman of the Association of Northern Ireland Car Clubs and was also involved in helping to establish the Ulster Rally in 1976. He still works as a steward for Motorsport UK, attending around four events every year both here and in Scotland.
"I've always tinkered with cars and still have a couple of old MGs," he explains. "I raced mainly with my cousin and I also took part as co-driver in the Circuit of Ireland twice. The first year we came second in our class which we were very pleased about.
"It was a bit of an endurance test as it lasted five days from Good Friday until Easter Tuesday."
John was a young man when he joined his local Masonic Lodge at Catham Hall, close to Antrim's famous Dark Hedges in 1966, and he is proud to have recently taken over the reins as Provincial Grand Master of Antrim from John Dickson, who held the post for 10 years.
Over 300 Freemasons and their partners from across Ireland attended his installation dinner in the Tullyglass Hotel.
John admits the organisation has long struggled with its image, not least the perception that it is an elitist boys-only club. He also confirms that the secret codes remain as part of a tradition which allows members worldwide to recognise each other.
He has witnessed many changes over the years, however, and in his new role as Provincial Grand Master he hopes to help lift dispel some of the mysteries that surround the organisation while encouraging new members to join during his term of office.
"We are fighting all the time against misconceptions about our image," he says. "Barriers are breaking down and I think society is realising it is not the elitist organisation people think it is.
"In my life it has simply been a great friendship club. We are not a secret society but a society with secrets.
"It goes right back to the Bible and it is part of the old tradition that each mason is given signs and secrets which are just known to each other as Masons.
"Yes, we don't have any women members but a few female lodges have opened in England although there are none in Ireland.
"My wife is in the Women's Institute and they don't have any men so it's horses for courses in my opinion.
"We do encourage women to attend functions and at my installation there were 70 ladies there. We encourage them to get involved in social activities and we hold various functions throughout the year."
He says that membership has fallen in recent years but insists it has started to grow again. "My aim is to encourage younger people to join," says John.
"I think it might appeal to men aged between 30 and 50 who are married and have their families set up and are looking for an interest. That said though, young men from as young as 22 would also enjoy the great friendships that are to be had.
"I see young men joining us and actively seeking out the social interaction and friendship that being a Freemason provides. In a world where technology is taking control of our lives, meeting with people face to face is unarguably on the decline. We can offer the hand of friendship and provide an alternative to the social media culture which thrives in our society today."
As well as friendship, John says the Freemasons have a proud history of charity work.
Some years ago lodges raised money to fund two Masonic schools, one for boys and one for girls. The money was used to pay for the education of children of deceased members.
The two schools were sold and the money invested into a new fund which is also used to support children whose fathers were members by paying for uniforms and other educational equipment.
Today the Masons choose a charity to support on an annual basis and in 2018 the Antrim area was able to hand over £40,000 to Action Cancer.
This year the lodges are raising funds to support four charities which are to benefit from the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland's Vision 2020 event, which is a charity festival staged every five years.
While largely regarded as a Protestant organisation in Northern Ireland, John says he has Catholic friends who are Masons and he is determined in his new role to open the doors to everyone to join.
He says: "All you need to be a Mason is a belief in the Supreme Being, our God. We are completely non-political and non-sectarian. Sectarian or political talk is not allowed.
"We do have Catholic members and I do have some Catholic friends who are very good Masons. To me, opening the organisation up to a new generation lies in our social interaction with our families and friends, both Masonic and non-Masonic.
"It's also consistent with us encouraging a greater understanding that Freemasonry is all-inclusive, it leaves no one out no matter what race, colour or creed, and it's consistent with us sharing what we do and showcasing the wonderful work we do for both Masonic and non-Masonic charities.
"Goodwill to all, kindness and a desire to help those less fortunate are fundamental principles of the Masonic fraternity and therefore, charitable giving is a major part of our membership.
"I do believe we are in a time where change is necessary to ensure relevance of all organisations, and as the Freemasons of the Province of Antrim we are now ready for the next exciting chapter."
His own sons have both left Northern Ireland. Ian travels the world with his job with a drinks company and is currently in New York. Paul lives in London, where he runs a hedge fund. He recently came home for his father's installation.
John adds: "My younger son is keen to take up membership of the Freemasons and I think my older boy will do the same some day when he puts down roots.
"I believe Freemasonry has a great future and I am immensely proud to represent this organisation in the great province of Antrim."
To find out more visit www.pglantrim.org