After missing the Camera Club field trip to Emo Court, I took a rare mid-week opportunity to explore this fine estate, located near the village of Emo in County Laois, Ireland. 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 was killed in the 1798 rebellion, 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 and aftermath of the Great Famine, came near to being sold. 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 (52 km2), 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. 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, but originally the mile-long avenue was an approach to the house. These giant trees were first introduce 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 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, Whilst here i completly missed out on the lake and gardens to the rear of the house. Tours of the house are also available but photography & video are not allowed, (Booooooo).