The building of Emo Court began around the year 1790 for John Dawson, the 1 Earl of Portarlington,(above) whose name is recalled in Dawson Street in Dublin. The Earl was interested in architecture, and invited James Gandon to come to Ireland where he is best remembered for designing the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin. Emo Court was to replace an earlier building on a nearby site known as Dawsons Court and is the only country house designed by Gandon.
The house is two storeys over a basement with attics forming end towers at each end of the building. The entrance front has a 7-bay centre with a pedimented Ionic portico. On each side on the end towers, there is a panel of Coade stone, on one side representing the Arts and on the other a pastoral scene. In the Arts panel, James Gandon can be seen with the plans of Emo Court in his hand. Heraldic tigers stand imposingly at the entrance steps.
The house had not been completed when the 1 Earl died in 1798, and the 2 Earl was continually short of money but managed in 1834 to engage Louis Vulliamy, a fashionable London architect, to complete the dining room and garden front portico. However, the house was still unfinished when the 2 Earl died in 1845. It was left to the 3 Earl in 1860 to commission William Caldbeck, a Dublin architect, to finish the drawing room, rotunda and library. He added a detached bachelors wing which was joined to the house by a curved corridor.
In 1930 the house was bought by the Jesuits to use as a seminary, and it underwent inevitable changes to adapt it to its new life. The wall and mahogany doors between the rotunda and drawing room were removed to provide a chapel. The library became the refectory, the dining room the conference room. The marble columns in the library were dismantled and removed, statues and a marble Rococo chimney-piece were carefully put in storage in the basement, and other changes were made to turn the home into an institution. Father Frank Brownes wonderful photographs document these alterations.
In 1958, dry rot was discovered and the well-known Dublin architect Michael Scott suggested that the house be demolished to make way for a new building. This did not happen, and repairs were made and central heating installed.
In 1969 the Jesuits left Emo, and the house was bought by Mr Cholmeley Harrison. Cholmeley Harrison had already used Sir Albert Richardson and Partners, the English firm of architects, to restore his previous houses in London and Co Waterford, and at Emo they rose to the occasion. Over twenty years, Emo Court was restored to its former glory even more glorious than before. The marble columns and chimney-piece, the magnificent doors, floors and walls were restored to a neo-Classical beauty. The entrance hall was painted in trompe-loeil to represent the plaster decoration that Gandon had planned but which was never carried out. All of this was assisted by the discovery of Gandons original drawings for the house, which are now in the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin.