I know what you are must be thinking, who or what is an Emo Court? Is it a place where sad teenagers dressed in black congregate to talk about sad things and sing sad songs? You will be glad to know that it is not, and is in fact a beautiful neo-classical style country house that I have been visiting for years with my family.
I am not a native Dubliner, in fact I grew up in a town called Portlaoise which is about a hour and half drive away from the city. Emo Court is located nearby in the village of Emo which is close to a larger town, Portarlington. I have visited the house and its grounds countless times and sometimes when I go home to visit, we take a trip out to the house for a walk in its picturesque surroundings.
Emo court was designed by the famous Irish architect James Gandon for the first Earl of Portarlington, John Dawson. You may know Gandon as the architect behind buildings such as the Customs House and Kings Inns in Dublin. Gandon was not in the habit of designing private homes but he agreed to design Emo Court as a favour to the Earl. So Gandon fans should try and visit the house as it is a novelity for Gandon.
After the Earls left for England after World War I the house, like many stately homes of the time fell into a state of disrepair. The estate was then carved up and land was sold to local farmers. There was a groundsman employed on the premises but he was concerned mainly with the security of the property rather than restoration or upkeep.
But in 1930 the house found some saviours in the form of the Jesuits. They purchased the house and slowly the estate began to function again. They created farms and orchards and began much needed repairs to the house. Although they made some major alterations to the inside of the house, as they needed space for a chapel and assembly room, they threw nothing out. All the features they removed were wrapped up and stored in the basement of the house to be saved for future generations. Also without their intervention the house probably would have rotted away like so many other beautiful country houses.
But the main man that locals associate with the house and the man that can be credited with restoring the house to reflect its original design was Major Chomley Harrison. He rebuilt what the Jesuits had altered, reinstalled the original features that were in storage and landscaped the remaining gardens and lake. His daughters did not want to inherit the house (they all have big estates of their own) so he handed it over to the State. He lived in Emo Court until his death in 2008 when the OPW (Office of Public Works) took over the running of the estate. All that time though he kept restoring the estate which was very expensive and time consuming. According to our tour guide it was definitely a labour of love for him. I met him only once and he seemed very nice and very old.
As mentioned above the house was designed by James Gandon in the neo-classical style. Symmetry was very important in the design both inside and outside of the house. Access to the inside of the house is by tour only but it is well worth going on as it is only €3.00 for an adult or €1.00 for children or students. There are so many wonderful features so in what as become my default style I will list some of the highlights of the house.
The pediment and columns: These features give the house a very grand feeling you definitely feel like you are entering somewhere very important. The pediment shows the Earl’s coat of arms flanked by scenes from agriculture and the arts. These were the favourite pastimes of the commissioning Earl so they were designed to reflect this. There are also two heraldic tigers on the steps which used to look huge and fierce to me as a child. I will ask though that if you do visit please do not sit on them as they are quite old, you don’t want to break them.
The entrance hall: This is really lovely and has some features that are worth a look at. The chandelier is original from the time of the Earls and it is remarkable to think that it survived all this time. Another thing to note are the wall paintings in the trompe-l’œil style, which gave the optical illusion of mini-domes in the room. But the best feature of this room in my opinion are the doors that lead nowhere. They were put in for the sake of symmetry and are purely for decorative purposes. What fun!
The rotunda:This is often cited as the most spectacular room in Emo court and I would be inclined to agree. It was designed by another famous architect William Caldbeck. This room was opened up by the Jesuits and they removed much of the walls and decorative features. Major Cholmeley-Harrison then restored it to its former glory. It is a copper dome and the room is decorated with pilasters of Siena Marble. The parquet inlaid floor is designed with Chomley Harrison’s family crest in the centre recognising their contribution to house. The window overlooks one of the statues of the Four Seasons and the beautiful gardens.
The dining room: The OPW to their credit, have tried to keep the rooms as they would have been when Major Chomley Harrison lived there. Because of this there are some great items in the house which give a great sense of how people lived in these great houses. Some of my favourite items were found in the dining room as we could see original table settings, family portraits, and gifts given to the families who lived there. We were shown a large basket which servants used to carry plates from the table, a gentleman’s drinking cabinet with a secret compartment for emergency stashes and a deer’s foot which was a wedding gift for Major Chomley Harrison from his army colleagues.
Family Photos and portraits: All the rooms we went into were decorated with photos, drawing and portraits of Major Cholmeley-Harrison, his family and important people in his life. This gave the tour guide an opportunity to share some of his family history which was fascinating. Also I felt to was a fitting tribute to the man who saved the building and spent his later years restoring it to what it was intended to be.
Artwork and furniture: There were many pieces of art which did not depict a member of the family but were beautiful none-the-less. On the tour you can see some Dutch masters, contemporary Irish painters and many others from the Major’s private collections. The furniture was all his too, much of it coming from an estate in Scotland. My favourite piece was a corner unit that he spotted as a boy and loved. He later found it at an auction many, many years later and bought it. Fantastic eye for detail! There were also some other items such as some swords, a fire shield and ornate chairs that I really liked.
Overall the charm of the house lies in the fact that it still looks like a family home, albeit a very grand one! The personal touches such as photographs really add to the atmosphere of homeliness and you can tell that the house was much loved. Another element that sets Emo Court apart from some other house tours is that you can walk in and around the rooms rather than staring at the items from behind a rope. You can get up close to have a look at whatever has interested you and it does make a difference. The tour guide was brilliant and very knowledgeable about the history of the house and the objects displayed within it. If you do get a chance to take the tour I could not recommend it enough.
On Thursday I will finish the description of Emo Court with a round up of the gardens.
There is a great resource book that has been put together about Emo Court, click here it open it.