Let Them Eat Hake
“They all knew each other, or about each other,” suggests Mark Girouard in his chapter “A Country House Childhood” in Town and Country, 1982. He’s referring to the Anglo Irish. That was even the case in the 19th century. “The owner of Ballyfin saw his neighbour’s property Emo Court and wanted that,” confirms award winning architect John O’Connell who runs an international Grade 1 Conservation Practice based in Dublin. No surprises there, for Emo Court is an architectural masterpiece. It’s one of the Big Houses of Ireland, the size of a terrace of Dublin townhouses. A copper dome on the middle of the roof lends it a municipal air. Its architect, London born James Gandon (he would move to Ireland when he was 40), designed some of Dublin’s great public buildings: his Custom House and The Four Courts still grace the banks of the River Liffey. James Gandon didn’t just inspire Ballyfin. Attempts have been made to emulate his Dublin Custom House at least twice: Doolin + Butler’s 1912 University College Dublin and Jones + Kelly’s 1935 Cork City Hall.
“It’s a railway station in disguise!” John jests. “The volume of the library is Rome come to Laois. The interior is like being inside a very public building.” In the late 18th century landowner John Dawson, 1st Earl of Portarlington, was running in the same social circle as James Gandon. In 1790 he commissioned the architect, who had trained under Sir William Chambers, to design a country house on his estate. John notes, “The Earl was a great sponsor of Gandon.” The construction of the house continued after the death of both client and architect. The 2nd Earl engaged London architect Louis Vulliamy alongside Dublin architects Arthur and John Williamson. Elevation and profile ink and watercolour drawings by the Williamsons dated 1822 survive in the Irish Architectural Archive. The 3rd Earl commissioned Dublin architect William Caldbeck to complete the house. Despite these multiple hands at work across eight decades, Emo Court resonates complete neoclassical perfection. On a grey rainy day its copper dome still shines bright as a green beacon of good taste.
At one time, only The Phoenix Park in Dublin was a larger enclosed estate in Ireland than the 4,450 hectares of Emo Court. In 1920 the 6th Earl sold Emo Court to the Irish Land Commission who in turn sold it on to the Jesuits along with 100 hectares. Almost half a century later, the splendidly monikered Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison, an English financier, snapped it up for £42,000. He enlisted the London architect Sir Albert Richardson to restore the house. In 1994, the Major presented Emo Court to President Mary Robinson who received it on behalf of the Irish nation.