Emo Court, located near the village of Emo in County Laois, Ireland, is a large neo-classical mansion, formal and symmetrical in its design. It was designed by the architect James Gandon in 1790 for John Dawson, the first Earl of Portarlington. It is one of the few houses to have been designed by Gandon, another including Roslyn Park, Sandymount. Other buildings by him include the Custom House and Kings Inns, both in Dublin. Gandon was so busy with his work in Dublin that he found little time to work on Emo Court. This may be one of the reasons that it took so many years for Emo Court to be made habitable, let alone finished. The house and gardens were taken into ownership by the Irish state in the 1990s, and now managed by the Office of Public Works. The estate is open to visitors.
18th and 19th century construction
When the 1st Earl (John Dawson, 1st Earl of Portarlington; 1744–1798) was killed in the 1798 rebellion, his new house was under construction – but far from finished. The 2nd Earl (John Dawson, 2nd Earl of Portarlington; 1781–1845) employed new architects to continue the work. The building became habitable during his lifetime. However, when he died 47 years later, it was still unfinished and in the aftermath of the Great Famine (1845–1852), came near to being sold. By the 1860s, the 3rd Earl (Henry John Reuben Dawson-Damer, 3rd Earl of Portarlington; 1822–1889) succeeded in bringing Emo Court to a state closely resembling that which welcomes visitors today. Some elements of the basic structure are faithful to the original plans of James Gandon. However, while Gandon was involved in the first twenty years of its building, given how long the building was in development, little more than his name can be connected with the house which finally came into being.
Early 20th century decline
Emo Court was in its heyday in the final forty years of the 19th century. However, after the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and, two years later, the Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence, the Earls of Portarlington, like many Protestants and most of the Anglo-Irish nobility and gentry, left for Great Britain permanently, and the house was shut up. In 1920, the estate, which extended over nearly 20 square miles (52 km2), was sold to the Irish Land Commission. The house remained unoccupied, while most of the land was distributed to local farmers.
Jesuits at Emo
In 1930 the house was acquired by the Jesuits. One of the first Jesuit priests to live there was Father Francis Browne, best known as a photographer of people and scenery in Ireland over the first half of the 20th century. As landlords, the Jesuits turned the grounds into a productive farm and orchard and used part of them for playing fields. Some drastic changes were made in the interior, to provide a chapel and assembly room. The Jesuits wanted functional space and the architecture was not their primary concern.
Major Cholmeley Harrison to present
A new chapter began for Emo Court when the Jesuits moved their novitiate to Manresa House and sold the property to Major Cholmeley Harrison. His desire was to live in a stately home, surrounded by beautiful gardens. He commissioned the London architect Sir Albert Richardson, the leading authority on Georgian architecture, to take on the restoration of the house. While the house remained a private residence, the public were encouraged to enjoy the gardens every Sunday for a small fee.
The final phase began in 1994 when Cholmeley Harrison presented Emo Court to the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who received it on behalf of the people of Ireland. Cholmeley Harrison continued to live there in private apartments until his death, aged 99 in July 2008. Staff of the Office of Public Works (OPW) now care for the estate, and are responsible for preserving the house and estate for visitors.
House and gardens today
The approach to Emo Court today begins through a relatively small gateway. Within the grounds, a road runs for some distance through a beech wood which opens up to give a view to the right of the house and the giant sequoias which now line an avenue, but originally the mile-long avenue was an approach to the house. These large trees were first introduced in 1853 and named Wellingtonias in honour of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who died the previous year. Visitors are directed to a car park at the side, so that the house and its trees are preserved free from cars. To the left are coach houses and servants' quarters, to the right mature trees and in the centre the entrance front, dominated by a pediment supported by four Ionic pillars. The Earl’s coat of arms fills the pediment and, to left and right, are 18th-century friezes depicting agriculture and the arts.
Inside the house, an octagonal entrance hall has doors in each of its four angles. Two of them really are entrances to other rooms. The others are there to give a balanced effect. A larger doorway leads to the Rotunda (inspired by the Pantheon), a noted feature of the mansion and also the way into two of the major rooms and out to the garden. Completed about 1860 by the Dublin architect William Caldbeck, it is two storeys high, surmounted by a dome which extends above the roof line of the rest of the house. Pilasters of Siena marble support the ornate ceiling.
The gardens at Emo are 35 hectares of naturalistic landscaped grounds, with formal areas, woodland walks, many statues and a 20-acre lake – an feature of neoclassical landscape design. Many of the original statues were found in the waters of the lake and it is suspected they found their way there during the time the Jesuits were living in the property, who wanted to hide pagan nudity of figures, where they survived until their eventual discovery and restoration. The gardens are divided into two main areas. The Clucker, which contains some rare specimen trees and glades of azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and other shrubs. The Grapery is an arboretum though which wind a series of pathways, each opening to vistas of the surrounding Slieve Bloom Mountains or towards the house.
- "Heritage Ireland: Emo Court". Retrieved 2011-10-31.