Emo Court is a fine country villa designed by architect James Gandon (1743–1823), one of most celebrated architects to have worked in Ireland. He is best known for his great public buildings, including the Custom House and Four Courts in Dublin. With a demesne of over 4,500 hectares, Emo Court was the second-largest enclosed estate in Ireland after the Phoenix Park in Dublin. It recalls an era when the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy was at its height and the so-called Big House dominated the Irish rural landscape.
The house itself is a beautiful example of the neoclassical style, inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, with its Ionic columns and large dome. Gandon designed the building in 1790 for John Dawson, the first Earl of Portarlington. The earl died during the 1798 Rebellion when he caught pneumonia while guarding French prisoners in County Mayo, as a result, the house remained incomplete. He was succeeded by his son, the second Earl, who carried out some work in the 1830s. During this phase the garden was completed and work commenced on the interior, but the Earl’s financial difficulties prevented further progress. Starting in 1860, the third Earl oversaw building of the copper dome on the rotunda, as well as work on the interior and construction of a bachelor wing. Emo Court became the setting for many lavish social events during the second half of the 19th century.
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Emo Court • Laois
The Later History of Emo Court
When the Portarlingtons left Emo Court in 1920, the estate was sold to the Irish Land Commission and the house fell into decline. The Jesuit Order purchased the house in 1930 and used it as a seminary, ensuring that it did not fall into decay like similar houses around Ireland. The noted Jesuit photographer Father Frank Browne, who took thousands of photos documenting Irish life, lived here from 1930 to 1957.
In 1969, the Order sold Emo Court to Major Cholmley-Harrison. He was a stockbroker who had served as a Royal Marine during the Second World War. He had previously owned Woodstown House in County Waterford but when he rented that house to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967 it became the focus of unwanted media attention and he decided to look for a new residence. It is said that he stopped off to view Emo on his way to the Irish Derby at the Curragh and decided to purchase the house from the Jesuits for £40,000. He began the laborious process of restoring the house and its grounds, reinstating many of the important architectural features of Emo Court, some of which had been put in storage by the Jesuits. He even found pieces of marble columns that had been dismantled by the Jesuits and scattered throughout the gardens. In 1994, Major Cholmley-Harrison donated the house and estate to the Irish people. He continued to live in the house until his death in 2008. A cherry blossom has been planted in the grounds in his memory.
Today the site is managed by the OPW, and you can enjoy a guided tour of the building. At any time of year, the grounds are a delightful place for a walk, but it is particularly lovely in May when the bluebells are in bloom.
Top: heraldic tigers guard the entrance • Middle: A lake within the landscaped parkland • Bottom: Emo Court is a fine example of a neo-classical mansion
Upper left: heraldic tigers guard the entrance • Lower left: Emo Court is a fine example of a neo-classical mansion • Right: a lake within the landscaped parkland