08 August 2019
Emo Court is one of the few
neo-classical country houses
designed by James Gandon
On the journey between Limerick and Dublin earlier this week, I stopped to visit Emo Court and its magnificent gardens, just 2.5 km from Emo village and 7 km from Portarlington.
Emo Court is a magnificent neo-classical house and one of only a few private country houses designed by the architect James Gandon (1743-1825), one of the leading architects to work in Ireland at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Gandson’s best-known works include the Custom House, the Four Courts, King’s Inns and the Foster Place and House of Lords entrances at the Parliament in Dublin, and Emo Court in Co Laois. His other works include Abbeville in Kinsealy, and a number of churches, including Saint Andrew’s in Lucan.
After the Phoenix Park in Dublin, Emo Court was once the largest enclosed estate in Ireland. But the story of Emo Court goes back almost a century earlier to Ephraim Dawson (1683-1746), a wealthy banker in the early 18th century who gave his name to Dawson Street in Dublin.
Dawson bought the Emo Estate and other estates in the Queen’s County (now Co Laois), and was MP for Portarlington (1713-1714) and Queen’s County (1715-1746). He built Dawson Court, an early 18th century Palladian mansion set in a formal landscape.
His son, William Henry Dawson (1712–1779), was given the title of Viscount Carlow, and was the father of John Dawson (1744-1798), made the Grand Tour around 1769, and there is a portrait of him painted in Rome by Pompeo Batoni that year. Dawson was an accomplished artist too and had an outstanding library stocked with purchases from his grand tour.
He had been MP for Portarlington and after succeeding as 2nd Viscount Carlow he also became the 1st Earl of Portarlington in 1785. Three years later, he married Lady Caroline Stuart, daughter of John Stuart (1713-1792), 3rd Earl of Bute, who had been the British Prime Minister (1762-1763).
Lord Portarlington was no liberal, however, and he opposed Grattan and Flood in the Irish Parliament. He died of pneumonia in 1798 in Mayo, having been sent there to guard French prisoners, and was buried in Coolbanagher Church, outside Emo, also designed by Gandon.
He commissioned James Gandon to design Emo Court in 1790, although the house was not finally completed until 1870, 80 years later. Carlow was responsible for bringing Gandon to Ireland to develop Dublin, and he employed Gandon from 1780 at Emo Court and to build a church in Coolbanagher.
John Dawson (1781-1845), 2nd Earl of Portarlington, began a career in the army as an ensign and was a colonel by 1814. However, he was disgraced at Waterloo a year later when he went missing the night before the battle and turned up too late to join his regiment. He gave illness as the excuse for his absence, but was forced to resign. He retreated into a life of dissipation, although he devoted much money – more than he actually had – to work on Emo Court.
He commissioned the Dublin-based brothers, Arthur and John Williamson, to design interior and exterior schemes, of which only the entrance portico seems to have been realised in 1824-1826.
The Williamsons were succeeded by the English architect, Lewis Vulliamy, who produced working drawings for the north portico. Some of the surviving decorative schemes in the hall and dining room may have been his work around 1834. But other interior work was curtailed when the second earl ran out of funds; rooms were left filled with abandoned scaffolding and heaps of mortar and tools. He never married and died in 1845, left with only ‘two shillings’ and leaving a common law wife and three children out of wedlock.
Emo Court and the family estates and titles then passed to his nephew, Henry Dawson (1822-1889), 3rd Earl of Portarlington, who changed his family name to Dawson-Damer. The Damer family’s estates included Damer House and Roscrea Castle in Roscrea, Co Tipperary.
However, there was no money to maintain the heavily indebted estate at Emo Court, and it was put up for sale under the Encumbered Estates Act in 1852. However, no sale took place, a Damer family property in Dorset was sold to raise to redeem the debt, and Emo became the principal residence of the 3rd Earl until his death in 1889.
He married Lady Alexandrina Octavia Maria Vane (1823-1874), daughter of Charles William Vane, Marquess of Londonderry. Known locally as Lady Aline, she became a Roman Catholic in 1869. They had no children, and when she died in 1874, she was buried in Saint Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, Emo.
The third earl was a popular and benevolent landlord, known for his interest in his tenants’ welfare and for his generosity – during the Great Famine, he donated £94 to the soup kitchens in Portarlington in 1847, at a time when the next highest contribution was £20.
The third earl commissioned William Francis Caldbeck (1824-1872), a Dublin architect, to finish the rotunda, drawing room and library at Emo Court in the 1860s. He added the bachelor apartments and installed gas and at least one bathroom.
Emo Court, the estates and titles passed to his cousin, Lionel Seymour Dawson-Damer (1832-1892), 4th Earl of Portarlington. He was nicknamed ‘Hippy’ and had been a captain in the Scots Fusilier Guards in the Crimean War and MP for Portarlington (1857-1865, 1868-1880). His mother, Mary (‘Minnie’) Seymour, was a ward from an early age of Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, who had illicitly married the Prince of Wales, later George IV, in 1785; indeed, some websites suggest Minnie was secretly a daughter of Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV.
His three short years as Earl of Portarlington (1889-1892) did not give him enough time to make many improvements or changes at Emo.
Lionel George Henry Seymour Dawson-Damer (1858-1900), 5th Earl of Portarlington, spent a lot of his time with racehorses, cycling, photography and shooting. When he died at the early age of 42, Emo Court and the titles passed to his son, Lionel Arthur Dawson Damer (1883-1959), who was only 17 when he became 6th Earl of Portarlington in 1900.
There would be many momentous changes at Emo in the years until he died in 1959. The estate income dwindled as various Land Acts that allowed tenants to buy their properties. A financial solution was offered in 1907 when Lord Portarlington married a wealthy heiress, Winnifreda Yuill, daughter of a Scottish millionaire who had made his money in trade with Asia and Australia. But Lady Portarlington never cared greatly for Emo Court and preferred the glittering social life of London.
World War I created additional problems, and a decision was taken in 1918 to sell the house and its contents.
The house and its vast demesne of over 4,500 ha (11,150 acres) were sold to the Irish Land Commission in 1920, and the contents were put up for sale. The house remained empty until 1930, when the house, 150 ha, including the garden, pleasure grounds, walled garden, woodland and lake, were bought for £2,000 by the Jesuits for a novitiate.
Emo Court became known as Saint Mary’s, Emo. The house was opened as the Novitiate of the Irish Province in 1930, and there were 52 novices that year. The distinguished Jesuit photographer, Father Frank Browne lived at Emo Court in 1930-1957. A notable novitiate was the writer Benedict Kiely.
The Jesuits made several structural changes to the house, including the conversion of the rotunda and library as a chapel and to provide an assembly room. They turned the grounds into a productive farm and orchard and part of the grounds became playing fields.
By the 1960s, Saint Mary’s, Emo, was too isolated for modern ideas about training novices. The numbers of novices were declining too, so that in the final years there were 15 novices remaining. The Jesuits left Emo for Manresa House in Dollymount, Dublin, in September 1969, and Emo Court was bought by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison, a former London stockbroker.
His vision was to restore Emo Court to its former glory, and he commissioned a leading London architect, Sir Albert Richardson, to take on the project. The house remained a private residence, although the public were encouraged to enjoy the gardens for a small entrance fee.
Cholmeley Harrison presented Emo Court House to the people of Ireland in 1994, when President Mary Robinson officially received the house and the parklands on behalf of the nation. He continued to live in private apartments there until he died in 2008.
Some elements of the basic structure at Emo Court are faithful to the original plans of James Gandon. However, while Gandon was involved in the first 20 years of building, because of the length of time involved in building the house, little more than his name can be connected with the house that finally came into being.
Emo Court is a nine-bay, two-storey and three-storey over basement neo-classical house, over a basement, with attics forming the end towers at each end of the house. The entrance front has a seven-bay centre and is dominated by a pediment supported by four Ionic pillars. The coat of arms of the Earls of Portarlington fills the pediment.
On each side on the end towers is an 18th-century frieze panel in Coade stone, on one side representing the arts and on the other representing agriculture. In the arts panel, a figure representing Gandon holds his plans of Emo Court in his hand.
Heraldic tigers stand imposingly at the entrance steps, holding in their paws the coat-of-arms of the Dawson family along – unlike the coat-of-arms in the pediment which show the Damer and Dawson arms quartered.
Inside the house, an octagonal entrance hall has doors in each of its four angles. Two doors really are entrances to other rooms, the other two merely give a balanced effect. A larger doorway leads to the rotunda, said to be inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, and completed by William Caldbeck around 1860. Pilasters of Siena marble support the ornate ceiling.
The rotunda is most splendid feature in the house and also the way into two of the major rooms and out to the garden.
The beautiful gardens and parklands were first laid out in the 18th century. They include formal lawns and a lake, with walks through the woodland. These woodland walks include the 1.5 km long Wellingtonia Avenue, flanked by giant sequoias. These large trees were first introduced in 1853 and were named Wellingtonias in honour of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, who died the previous year. This choice by the third earl may reflect an attempt to redeem the family name after the reputation earned by his uncle, the second earl, at the Battle of Waterloo almost four decades earlier.
The gardens at Emo are 35 ha of landscaped grounds, with formal areas, woodland walks, statues and a 20-acre lake – a feature of neoclassical landscape design.
Many of the original statues were found in the waters of the lake and it is said they ended up there because the Jesuits wanted to hide the pagan nudity of the figures. The statues survived in the lake until their eventual discovery and restoration.
The series of pathways have several openings to views of the surrounding Slieve Bloom Mountains or towards the house.
The house is now managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW), whose staff now care for the estate and preserve its stately elegance. Emo Court is open daily from the end of March to late September and weekends only in October. Access to the house by guided tour only. The gardens are open all year.
The present, seventh Earl of Portarlington, George Lionel Yuill Dawson-Damer, was born in 1938, and is the grandson of the sixth earl. His father, Viscount Carlow, was killed during World War II in 1944 while flying a mission for the RAF. He inherited the title in 1959 when his grandfather died and has lived in both Australia and Scotland.