Ireland's Ancient East / Laois / Leinster

Updated: A Visit to Emo Court House and Parklands

A couple walking their dogs along the tree-lined avenue leading to Emo Court

This post was originally published on 6 December 2018 and updated on 27 May 2019.

Emo Court House and Parklands are located just a couple of kilometres from the village of Emo in County Laois. The house is a magnificent neo-classical mansion that’s well worth a visit.  Take a tour to appreciate the stunning interiors and hear about the interesting history of Emo Court. Or simply enjoy the beautiful parklands surrounding the house, which are free to explore all year round. 

2019 marks 25 years since Emo Court was gifted to the people of Ireland by Major Cholmeley-Harrison. Thanks to his generosity the house and parklands have been enjoyed by many people from both near and far. In recent years visitors have numbered almost 300,000.

Today, the house opens for the 2019 season and a generous injection of government funding has allowed for significant refurbishment this year.  So prepare for an even more enjoyable visitor experience. New rooms have been refurbished and opened up within the house for exhibitions and displays. This includes a whole new floor to explore! Other improvements include refurbishment of the Walled Garden, which is also now open to the public.

There are also many exciting exhibitions, tours and performances planned for this year, including musical performances, poetry recitals and theatre. Details of the cultural programme are available on the Emo Court website.

The view towards the hills from the front steps of Emo Court.

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.

Close up of the front of Emo Court.

Looking up at the plasterwork on the front porch at Emo Court from the steps below

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 was speaking to a friend about our visit to Emo Court and he told me his father was one of those novices, though he came to realise it was not the right path for him!

Well renowned photographer Frank Browne was a Jesuit and spent many years at Emo Court where he had a photographic studio. He is best known for his images from the ill-fated Titanic and also had a lucky escape from the ship. Having travelled from Southhampton to Cork, he had the chance to stay on the ship and continue to New York. However, he was instructed by his superior to get off the ship in Queenstown (now Cobh), which may well have spared his life.

Father Browne  also photographed everyday life throughout Ireland and further afield and built up a unique record of social history. There is now a permanent exhibition of his life and works on display at Emo Court, which is a fascinating addition to the house.

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 came 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!!

Tree-lined walkway in the gardens at Emo Court on a sunny day.

Looking at the rear of Emo Court on the way to the lake.

Now I don’t know how true that is but it sure makes a good story! The Jesuits agreed to sell the estate at that price because they knew that Cholmeley Harrison could restore it to its former glory. Over the next two decades, that’s exactly what he did.

In 1994, Cholmeley Harrison bequeathed Emo Court to the Irish State. 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).

Emo Court Interiors and Tour

While entry to the parklands is free, if you want to get a peek inside the house, access is by guided tour only. When we did the tour it was about 40 minutes. I not sure if it’s longer now but as the new rooms and first floor are mainly self-guided, it’s probably similar time wise. The entrance fee is now €8 and well worth every cent.   

The reception area on entering Emo Court.

The entrance hall

The ornate ceiling of the rotunda at Emo Court.

The dome ceiling of the Rotunda

The interiors are really impressive and the tour gives you a good idea of the amount of work Cholmeley Harrison put into refurbishing Emo Court. Personally, I love the rotunda, which is all kinds of amazing from its ornate dome top to its inlaid parquet floor.

Ground Floor Rooms

In addition to the Rotunda, other rooms included in the tour are the dining room, library, drawing room and the study.  The ceiling in the dining room is particularly beautiful and I love that portraits Major Cholmeley Harrison’s family member still adorn the walls. More family portraits and photographs of his daughters can be found in the library too. 

The drawing room or formal living room is the largest room and is very grand.  I’m not sure I would have gone for the lime green walls but each to their own! It was apparently chosen to match the same flecks of colour which can be found in the Connemara marble columns in the room. Actually, looking at the photo now maybe it doesn’t look so bad. What do you reckon?!

The bright coloured living room at Emo Court

The brightly coloured living room!

First Floor Rooms

When we first visited Emo Court there was no access to the first floor but that’s no longer the case. Following the recent works the rooms have now been refurbished. They are now open to the public for the first time this season. There are currently two exhibitions on display through the various rooms, which will run until September. The exhibitions include contemporary still life artworks and also original architectural drawings for Emo Court by James Gandon. 

Gardens and Parklands

The gorgeous parklands surrounding Emo Court total 35 hectares. 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 and yew walks at the back of the house. There is also a loop walk around the 20 acre lake. 

The gardens at the rear of Emo Court

The avenue at Emo Court lined with tall trees.

To the front of the property, large Wellingtonia trees line the avenue leading to the house. The avenue is one mile long, making it the longest of its kind. The trees were were brought from America and planted at Emo Court in 1853. They 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 official Emo Court website for opening hours and pricing, particularly if you are going out of your way specifically to visit the house.

Image of the gift shop and café at Emo Court from outside.

The gift shop and café building.

Gift shop and entrance to the café at Emo Court

The gift shop leading through to the café.

There is plenty of parking available close to the main house, just next to CaToCa Fine Food and Giftstore at Emo Tea Rooms. The Tea Rooms are open all year round to keep you fed and watered! There is also another exhibition currently running there of beautiful botanical watercolour paintings and prints so be sure to check it out. 


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