The Jesuits and Emo Court


Sale of Emo Court in 1930

Following the departure of the Dawson-Damer family to England and the auction of the house contents, the house had lain empty since 1920. Much of the estate was owned by the Land Commission, and the house and part of the gardens were put up for sale. The house itself had fallen into some disrepair (one story even tells that grass was growing in the entrance hall) and the gardens had become completely overgrown and wild.

In 1929, the Society of Jesus decided to look for a new novitiate house which would be suitably remote and peaceful. Emo Court seemed admirably suitable, and the deeds were signed on 19th February 1930, with the house and 280 acres purchased for £2000. Emo Court became known as St. Mary’s, Emo.

The House was opened as the Novitiate of the Irish Province on 4th August 1930, and novices transferred from St Stanislaus’ College, Tullamore. There were 52 novices that year.

The Jesuits had bought the house, the gardens with walks,terraces and the Grapery behind it, the walled garden with glasshouses, and the lake. They also had right of way around the lake. Much of the original estate had been retained by the Land Commission and was let out to local farmers and there was also a School of Forestry.


Changes had to be made to turn the family home into an institution. There had always been some difficulties with water but these were sorted by taking a supply via the lake from the Toberkine well. 3000 gallons a day were pumped to the house.

A large shed (called the ambulacrum) was raised at the back of the house so that exercise could still be taken in bad weather. This shelter was used as a temporary chapel while alterations were being made within the house.

Central heating and washing facilities had to be installed. Bedrooms had to be turned into dormitories.

Perhaps most importantly, a chapel had to be constructed by amalgamating the rotunda and the (now) library and removing columns, doors, a mantlepiece and walls. Anything that was removed was stored in the basement.

The ballroom or saloon (originally the library) at the east end of the house became the community refectory, and the marble columns here too were removed and stored.

“An altogether barbaric record” says Fr Anthony Symondson in his article in the Irish Arts Review 1997 ‘A Miraculous Survival: Emo Court’. However, it should be noted that, in times of great economic deprivation, the Jesuits took on the responsibility of a very large historical house, and kept the roof on and the construction sound when it would have been very easy for Emo Court to slide into ruin. If they had not taken this responsibility, it is possible that there might now be no more than collapsed walls at Emo Court.


In 1958, dry rot was discovered and the roof needed repairs. There was damp in the Bachelors’ Quarters, where some of the Jesuits slept. More space was needed also. Michael Scott, the well-known architect, was consulted and recommended pulling down the whole building and starting afresh. This was not done, but extensive repairs and rebuilding were carried out at the instigation of the Rector, Fr Donal O’Sullivan, and oil-fired central heating was installed. Overall, £40,000 was spent on building works by the Jesuits.


In the 60s, it became apparent that St Mary’s was too isolated for the more modern ideas about training novices for work with the Society. The Novitiate moved to Manresa House in north Dublin, where novices could help in the work of retreats and in the running of boys’ clubs; they could easily go out to visit in hospitals, night shelters and homes for the elderly. It was felt that these occupations, along with prayer, study, reflection and meditation, were more in keeping with a commitment to Christ in the modern world.

In the late 60s, the number of Novices had diminished, so that in the final years at St Mary’s, there were 15 Novices, of whom 6 had dropped out during their two years training. This meant that it was exceedingly expensive to run the house for so few men, even with visitors coming to stay for various reasons. In September 1969, the Jesuits left Emo for Manresa House in Dollymount. Over 500 young men had begun their lives as Jesuits at Emo.