Heritage Sites of Co. Laois

Emo Court

Situated in beautiful parkland noted for its splendid avenue of mature Wellingtonia trees, Emo Court is one of the most important Neoclassical houses in Ireland.  Built for John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington, to the initial designs of James Gandon, construction started in 1791 and continued under the second and third Earls over the next fifty years.  The south entrance elevation tetrastyle portico with columns of Portland Stone was added in 1824–25 and that of the north was erected between 1834 and 1836. Further internal changes were made by the Dawsons and overseen by a number of architects at different periods, such as Arthur and John Williamson in 1829, Lewis Villiamy in the 1830s and William Caldbeck who completed the Rotunda twenty years later.

A remarkable aspect of the south façade is the insertion of two frieze panels of Coade Stone. To the left the panel shows agricultural activities, while in that on the right putti seem to be engaged in building Emo Court itself whose floor plan is depicted on a large chart. Coade Stone is a variety of constituted stone that was widely used in the eighteenth century. Panels, medallions, urns and other designs were fabricated by Eleanor Coade of Lambeth but on her death the recipe for this pale yellow, hard-wearing composite material was lost. Another example of its use in Ireland is at the Rutland fountain at Merrion Square.  

The south portico is of Portland Stone from which extends a plain entablature of granite on either side with balconies exhibiting Portland balusters and grey Irish limestone coping above.  The basement level is faced with channelised dark grey limestone but render obscures the bulk of any stonework on the upper stories.  The entrance doorcase was of carved Portland Stone and has been recently restored with matching stone; the window architraves are in a yellowy grey Wicklow granite. The pair of carved animals protecting the front door are by Richard Carter of Cork and date from 1854.

Inside the house a number of stone types have been used for decorative and utilitarian purposes of which the golden Sienna marble for the pilasters in the Rotunda is the most striking. The doorcase in the hallway, added in 1834, is of Sicilian white marble, while Portland Stone makes up the main staircase and flags of the stair hall. Designed not to be seen or used by the family, the back stairs is in granite that almost certainly is from Co. Wicklow. In the 1850s the third Earl undertook some remodeling and Ionic capitals, supported on columns of Connemara marble from Streamstown Quarry near Clifden, were added to both ends of the Library and provided welcome lithological texture to the room. The use of this marble was one of the earliest in Ireland, similar in date to those utilised in the Museum Building of Trinity College. 

When the Dawsons finally vacated the house in 1920 it was taken over by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) ten years later for use as a novitiate. Almost immediately they modified the house somewhat to suit their needs. This included opening up one side of the Rotunda and breaking into the Drawing Room, which resulted in the removal of two of the Sienna Marble pilasters. Other changes saw the Connemara marble columns of the Library dismantled and some of the drums were used in the garden to support statutory. These important rooms were converted into an oratory and refectory. The magnificent highly ornate Carrara marble chimneypiece in the Library was also removed but fortunately it was stored in the basement. Carved with what may be interpreted as a Bacchanalian motif and gamboling putti it didn’t suit the Jesuit ethos.

Following a decline in vocations the house was sold to Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison and he embarked on a timely program of restoration and conservation between 1969 and 1994 directed by Sir Albert Richardson. The Rotunda was restored to its original splendour with two new pilasters inserted—these are difficult to identify from the remaining originals—and the Connemara Marble columns were collected from around the garden, repolished and reassembled, and the Library received back the Carrara chimneypiece.

To the left of the main building stands a small service block. Of interest to lovers of stonework, the small rooms were heated from open fireplaces, many with Kilkenny black limestone chimneypieces. Now used as a visitor’s Centre, one of the rooms was once occupied by the celebrated photographer Father Francis Browne, who was a member of the Jesuit community and whose bedroom may have doubled up as a darkroom.         

In one of the upstairs bedrooms at Emo Court there is a beautiful distinctive chimneypiece with a broken pediment that is fabricated from a pale grey limestone. It is one of two that were salvaged from the nearby house Dawson’s Grove that was replaced by the large mansion in which it is now found. The second chimneypiece is plainer and is now attached to an outside garden wall (Irish Aesthete).

In 1995 the house was generously gifted to the state and today Emo Court is under the care of the OPW, which has continued its conservation. While stone has been transported for some elements of the house it is most probable that much of the masonry for rubble walling was quarried locally.  The precise source of this material remains tantalisingly unknown, but a small quarry cut in the underlying limestone bedrock situated alongside the avenue leading to the house may have supplied stone for some building enterprises on the Portarlington’s estate.

Further reading:

Geology of Co. Laois

The landscape of Co. Laois is mostly rather low-lying. In the north-west lies the eastern part of the heavily wooded Slieve Bloom Mountains, which are formed of the oldest rocks in the county, while in the south-east is the northern tip of the Castlecomer Hills, formed of the youngest bedrock in the county.

The oldest rocks in the county occur in several patches towards the centre of the Slieve Bloom Mountains where erosion has stripped away the younger rocks, but they are only exposed in the banks of a few streams. These grey mudstones, siltstones and sandstones are Silurian in age, around 425 million years old (Ma), and were deposited on a deep ocean floor. Lying above them are red to brown mudstones, sandstones and pebble beds with occasional peculiar knobbly limestones called ‘cornstones’. All of these were deposited on river floodplains in an Equatorial semi-desert environment, with the ‘cornstones’ actually forming within the soils of the time. Spores are the only fossils that have been found but they show that these rocks are of earliest Carboniferous age, just a little less than 360 Ma.

Soon after the start of the Carboniferous, sea level rose to flood across these low plains. The first of the marine rocks to be deposited were dark grey fossiliferous mudstones but above these is a series of thick grey limestones, which underlie much of the low ground across the county. At certain levels these limestones are quite fossiliferous with shells of brachiopods and nautiloids, corals, fragments of crinoids, and rarer fossils such as trilobites. Mostly these limestones accumulated as horizontal layers on a fairly shallow sea floor but for a time, around 340 Ma, peculiar steep-sided limestone ‘mud mounds’ formed on the sea bed. Some of the younger layered limestones, around 325 Ma, are much darker in colour and were deposited in considerably deeper water. Although the limestones mostly form low ground across the centre of the county, they are well exposed in various working and disused quarries and on some of the low hills in the south of the county, notably the Rock of Dunamase.

The low hills in the south-east corner of the county are of younger Carboniferous rocks, between 320 and 315 Ma. The earliest of these particular rocks are black mudstones and thin limestones, often containing patches of iron pyrite or ‘fools gold’, which
accumulated in deep, poorly oxygenated water. Above them lie sandstones and mudstones that were deposited by river deltas as sea level fell. Younger still is a series of sandstones and mudstones with thin coal seams, composed of plant material buried in a swamp, which formed the basis of the now defunct Leinster Coalfield.

As elsewhere across Ireland, the ice sheets and glaciers of the last Ice Age have modified the Laois landscape, although in a more subdued way than in some of the more mountainous regions of Ireland. The main effect has been to blanket much of the lowlands with glacial till, or ‘boulder clay’.

Map legend: Geological Map of Limerick (based on GSI 1:1,000,000 map 2003). Pale Green: Silurian; Beige: Devonian; Pale blue: Lower Carboniferous limestone; Dark green: Upper Carboniferous shales.