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March 16th, 1867


The governess occupied a position of great responsibility and authority in the Irish country house. She was expected to have a genteel exterior, teaching as much by example as by theory. Governesses were often German or Swiss girls or the daughters of local clergymen. As they were generally members of the gentry, governesses had an ambiguous status, being too refined to mix easily with the other servants, but too poor to be accepted as equals by the daughters of the household. Something of an outsider, the governess joined the family for breakfast and lunch when no guests were present, or ate with her charges in the schoolroom, seldom fraternising with the other household staff.




The ideal governess had a good temper and good manners and was very well-educated and accomplished. She had a broad range of skills and knowledge, for in addition to teaching ‘the three Rs’, she was expected to converse well in French and Italian, teach arithmetic, science and geography, and instruct young ladies in drawing and needlework. She was expected to play at least two musical instruments (preferably the pianoforte and harp), be proficient with a paintbrush, and know the rudimentary dance-steps, so as to provide the first lessons in these subjects before a master was employed.


She taught essential etiquette, instructing her pupils on dress decorum and how to behave when they entered society. She also gave religious and moral instruction, using pictures, stories and sewing phrases as aids. She taught her students to recite from books such as “Pratt’s Selection of Classical Poetry”, and used globes, microscopes and telescopes to broaden their knowledge of the world around them. Under her tutelage, her female charges became accomplished ladies, while their brothers were prepared for the best preparatory schools in the country.



The Home-School Day

The home-school day began early. Children rose at six or seven and had two hours of instruction before breakfast, as it was believed that this was the best time for study. Breakfast was followed by more lessons until lunchtime, with the afternoon devoted to nature walks, sketching-sessions, fresh air and exercise. In bad weather, dumb-bells and skipping ropes provided exercise, while chess and cards, games deemed suitable for genteel society, were sometimes allowed in the evenings.

The governess was expected to supervise her charges throughout this long day, correcting their bad habits and encouraging good manners. In return, she was rewarded with a salary ranging from ₤25-100, depending on her qualifications, social status and the number of pupils in her care. While sometimes allowed to attend house parties by her employers, she had to know her own station, fraternising with neither servants nor guests at such events.
Olive Sharkey 1998,30

Discipline and Atmosphere

Isolated and lonely, many governesses took out their frustrations on their young charges, disciplining them excessively with punishments such as the back paddle or the finger stocks. While ‘nanny’ was often remembered fondly as a pillar of warmth, love and kindness, many children of upper class families shuddered at the memory of their tyrannical governess. Viscount Carlow, for example, recalled shedding many a tear in the schoolroom at Emo Court because of Miss Howe. Some governesses, on the other hand, were terrorised by the rascals in their charge. Others were gifted teachers, lively, friendly and kind, who made lessons enjoyable for their young pupils and instilled in them a love of reading and education that would last their whole lives long.


Governesses, Schoolrooms and Tutors at Emo Court

We know a little about some of the early governesses and tutors employed at Dawson’s Court and Emo Court. The letters of the 1st Countess of Portarlington mention the difficulties of finding a governess for her children, particularly as she was never happy with the staff entrusted with their care. Her eldest son and heir, John, was clearly quite a handful. By the age of four, having been spoilt by his mother, he was too much for his poor governess. In the words of the Countess:

“…the governess cannot manage him at all, and seems quite to have given up the point… she is put out of patience, and seems worried to death with them. I could not help speaking to her of the little progress she has made with them, and told her if she found herself not equal to it, she had better give up the place, which she seemed very ready to do.”

 (Gleanings from an Old Portfolio 1895, II.60).


This timid governess is in sharp contrast to Miss Howe, the governess who brought young Viscount Carlow to tears in the schoolroom at Emo Court a century later.


The letters of the 1st Countess also mention a tutor named Mr Bourdage, who was employed at Emo Court to teach young Henry Dawson. When Henry went to school at Winchester, Mr Bourdage was dismissed and had to move out of Emo, much to his regret. A few months later, faced with Henry’s poor instruction by his new master, his father lamented that “he would have learnt more Latin had he continued with Mr Bourdage.”



The Schoolroom at Emo Court

Children’s rooms were generally located in a separate wing from the family apartments, usually on the upper floor of the house. At Emo Court, the 1900 Inventory lists some of the contents of the schoolroom. These included a globe, two bookcases, crayons, a piano, a writing table and a high-backed stool. The room also contained a single painting (of a mother and child) and no less than 36 religious prints, evidently for religious instruction. Fifteen or so years later, when the young Viscount Carlow spent time there, the schoolroom was located in the Red Room on the ground floor, with his nursery located on the top floor next to the servants’ quarters.