Emo Court, Laois
One of Laois' biggest visitor attractions is getting a makeover, with ambitious plans to do more.
Emo Court is an important 18th century big house that with its gardens and woods was gifted to the Irish state 25 years ago this year by Major Cholmeley Harrison.
In the past two years it has become a stronger focus of the Office of Public Works. Their bid for funding was awarded with a €1.2million grant in 2018 from the the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund.
That funded a restoration of the first floor which will open to visitors for the first time next Sunday May 26. The basement is also being restored for visitors.
The walled garden has been restored as has the Wellingtonia Avenue, a mile long driveway lined with majestic sequoia trees. Work continues on the formal gardens and a new toilet block has also recently opened.
Last Tuesday the OPW held a public meeting in the beautiful music room of the house, to reveal what is done, what is planned including arts events, and hear from the public.
An unexpected big number, about 100 people, crammed into the room.
Rosemary Collier, director of National Historic Properties for the OPW, was “estatic” at the turnout.
“It is amazing to have such wonderful commitment to your local heritage. We hope you travel with us as we achieve our vision for Emo in the years ahead,” she said.
Below: attending the Emo Court meeting were Anne Turley, Margaret Guijt Lawlor and Mary Lawlor from Portarlington.
The general manager Mary Heffernan said they are putting together a multi disciplinary team of experts to assess works needed, which she said includes a new carpark for tourists and a new roof for the house.
Dr Judith Hill, architectural historian, gave a brief history of the house and its owners, starting with John Dawson who inherited the estate in 1779 and brought famed architect James Gandon to design a house, ending with the Jesuits and Major Cholmeley's gift.
Ms Hill's continued research will inform future decisions on restoration “to ensure Emo remains an object of continuing discovery and change”.
Head gardener Valerie Cloonan gave a slide show of progress to restore the Wellingtonia Avenue, the walled garden and the ha ha, the dipped ditch between the garden and meadow.
Joanne Bannon is lead curator of the OPW's historic house collections. She noted important artworks in Emo house such as a protrait by Peter Lely, wedgewood urns, and a parquet floor that was found in an outhouse by Chomelely and reinstated.
“We need to protect the collection against risks including insects, light, dust, food, pollution and wear and tear,” Ms Bannon said.
Soft furnishings were found to have insects so they were carefully frozen in giant fridges shipped in especially for the job, eradicating them. New blinds have just been installed which eliminate 90% of damaging UV light but still allow the viewer to see out.
There are plans to introduce the Museum Standard Programme Ireland to Emo Court. This will raise the standard of care of collections, enable loans of other artwork, and access funding. However the security of the building will have to be strengthened.
Kieran Owens outlined a cultural programme for summer, formulated on request by the chief executive of Laois County Council John Mulholland.
Speakers, concerts and theatre will take place every second Sunday from June to September, with listings to follow. It includes a concert of Count John McCormack's songs in the house, and an outdoor theatre performance of Wuthering Heights in the walled garden.
Mr Mulholland praised the work by the OPW.
"This is the beginning of a new era for Emo Court. The team have achieved so much in a year. Never in its history has Emo Court had so much finance and attention. There is a new stream of funding and I am confident we can tap into it," he said.
Below: Emo Court neighbours Heather Frizzell, Hazel Dignam and Emma Dignam at the meeting.