Located just a couple of kilometres from the village of Emo in County Laois, Emo Court is a magnificent neo-classical mansion that is well worth a visit. Take a tour through the house to appreciate the stunning interiors and hear about its history, or you can simply enjoy the beautiful grounds surrounding the house, which are free to explore all year round.
The History of Emo Court
James Gandon and the Earls of Portarlington
Described as a country villa, Emo Court was designed in 1790 by English architect James Gandon for the Earls of Portarlington. Gandon worked on many notable buildings in Ireland, including the magnificent Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin.
While construction of Emo Court began in the 1790s, it was not until the 1860s that is was completed to the stage where it closely resembled the house as it stands today. By 1920, the last of the Portarlingtons had left Ireland following the War of Independence and the house was left unoccupied for a time.
The Jesuits at Emo Court
The house and land were purchased by the Jesuits in 1930 for use as a seminary and became known as St Mary’s. The interiors were modified significantly to meet their needs, including the addition of a chapel and assembly room. Over the following decades over 500 novices trained to become Jesuit priests at Emo. I recently found out that one of those novices was the father of a friend of mine, though he came to realise it was not the right path for him!
Major Cholmeley Harrison
Major Cholmeley Harrison purchased the estate from the Jesuits in 1969. According to our tour guide he was just driving nearby and came across a sign stating the property was for sale. He went to check it out and clearly liked what he saw. Though the Jesuits indicated they were looking for offers around the million pound mark, Cholmeley Harrison offered just £142,000. As the story goes, the Jesuits politely told him to take a hike but a short time later they contacted him and said they would accept £144,000!!
Now I don’t know how true that is but it sure makes a good story! It’s said that the Jesuits agreed to sell the estate at that price because they knew that Cholmeley Harrison could afford to carry out the necessary work to bring the building back to its former glory. Over the next two decades, that is exactly what he did.
Then in 1994, Cholmeley Harrison presented Emo Court to the Irish State but he continued to live there until his death in 2008, at the age of 99. The house and gardens are now managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW).
Interiors and Tour
While entry to the gardens if free, if you want to get a peek inside the house, access is by guided tour only. The tour is about 40 minutes and well worth it for the €5 fee, though we didn’t have to pay as we had our Heritage Cards and there were also free tours for Culture Night. So really we could have done the tour twice I guess!
The interiors are really impressive and the guide gives you a good idea of the amount of work Cholmeley Harrison put into rebuilding Emo Court after he purchased it. I personally loved the rotunda which is all kinds of amazing from its ornate dome top to its hardwood panelled bottom!
The formal living room is also beautiful, though I found the choice of lime green for the walls a little much. Each to their own though and it was apparently chosen to match the same flecks of colour which can be found in the Connemara (I think!) marble columns in the room. Actually, looking at the photo now maybe it doesn’t look so bad. What do you reckon?!
While it is currently just the ground level of the house that is open for viewing, it is hoped that the upper level will be accessible in the future.
Gardens and Parklands
The beautiful gardens and parklands surrounding Emo Court total 35 hectares and approaching the house you will travel through a beech wood with some walking trails. Other trails can be followed from the house or just enjoy the formal gardens to the back of the house, which lead down to a 20 acre lake.
To the front of the property, large Wellingtonia trees line the avenue leading to the house. The avenue, which is one mile long, is said to be the longest of its kind. The trees were planted in 1853 from seedlings which were brought from America. The trees were named after the Duke of Wellington, who had died in 1850. The smaller trees are ones that were planted in more recent times to fill the gaps along the avenue.
Watch out for red squirrels as they are a common sight at Emo Court. There are also three species of bat in residence too, though you are not likely to see them!
Before visiting Emo Court
Though the gardens are open all year, the house is closed from early November to late March. It is also only open at the weekends in October. It’s always best to check the Heritage Ireland website for opening hours and pricing, particularly if you are going out of your way just to visit Emo Court. It might also pay to call as sometimes there can be changes or maintenance work taking place and the website might not be updated.
There is plenty of parking available close to the main house and also CaToCa Fine Food and Giftstore at Emo Tea Rooms, which is open all year round to keep you fed and watered!