Emo Court, located near the village of Emo in County Laois, Ireland, is a large neo-classical mansion, formal and symmetrical in its design and with beautifully proportioned rooms inside. It was designed by the architect James Gandon in 1790 for John Dawson, the first Earl of Portarlington. It is the only house to have been designed by Gandon. 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.
When the 1st Earl died, his new house was under construction – but far from finished. The 2nd Earl employed new architects to continue the work. The building actually became habitable during his lifetime. But when he died 47 years later, it was still unfinished. The 3rd Earl succeeded where his parents and grandparents had failed and, round about 1860, brought 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. But the fact is that, while he undoubtedly was involved in the first twenty years of its building, little more than his great name can be connected with the house which finally came into being.
Emo Court was in its heyday in the final forty years of the 19th century. However, times were changing in Ireland and the Earls of Portarlington, like many of the old families who enjoyed lavish lifestyles based on their inherited wealth, failed to adapt. At the outbreak of the World War in 1914, the family left for England and the house was shut up. In 1920 the estate, which extended over nearly 20 square miles, was sold to the Irish Land Commission. The house remained unoccupied, while most of the land was distributed amongst local farmers.
In 1930 the house was acquired by the Jesuits. One of the first Jesuit priests to live there was Father Browne, best known as a brilliant photographer of Irish people and scenery over the first half of the 20th century. The Jesuits were excellent landlords and 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. But, without their intervention, it is more than likely that Emo Court would have suffered the fate of many big houses at the time. They were simply abandoned and left to fall into decay. Some stand as picturesque ruins, others have disappeared without a trace.
A new lease of life for Emo Court began when the Jesuits 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 very private residence, the public were encouraged to enjoy the gardens every Sunday for a modest 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 government’s Office of Public Works care for the estate now and do everything that is needed to preserve all that is good and to make it a welcoming place for visitors – both from Ireland and abroad.
The approach to Emo Court today begins through a rather unobtrusive gateway. Within the grounds, a road runs for some distance through a beech wood which opens suddenly to give a view to the right of the house and the Giant Sequoias which now line an abandoned avenue. Visitors are directed to a car park at the side, so that the house and its trees are preserved free from cars and from a goodly share of the 21st century. To the left are coach houses and servants’ quarters, to the right beautiful mature trees and in the centre the entrance front, dominated by a pediment supported by four graceful 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. Heraldic tigers guard the steps.
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 simply there to give a balanced effect. A larger doorway leads to the Rotunda, the most splendid 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 magnificent and they too have been brought back to the splendour of their past, with formal areas, woodland walks, abundant statuary and a lake. Indeed 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, where they survived until their eventual discovery and restoration. The gardens are divided into two main areas. The Clucker, which contains some fine and rare specimen trees and a vast range of azaleas and rhododendrons and other shrubs. This part of the garden is at its magnificent best in late Spring. The Grapery is an arboretum though which wind a series of pathway, each opening to vistas across the surrounding Slieve Bloom Mountains or towards the house. This is a marvellous place to visit in Autumn especially when it is a blaze of dramatic colours.