Schools supported by the Earls of Portarlington:

Emo, Coolbanagher and Morette

Emo Schools Morette School Coolbanagher School


The Earls of Portarlington acted as patron to three local schools: Emo, Morette and Coolbanagher, paying teachers’ salaries, inspecting pupils and appointing school managers. The 3rd Earl and Countess in particular seem to have taken a very active interest in the provision of education to local children. All three schools were supported by the Dawson-Damer family until the final days of occupation at Emo Court.



Emo Kennel School and National School

Emo Kennel School

The earliest record of a school patronised by the Dawson family is the Emo Kennel School, which was established at Emo in 1823 for Protestant pupils. It was patronised by the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Portarlington, the Hon. Lionel Dawson, and was also supported by the Kildare Street and London Hibernian Societies. The two teachers’ salaries were paid by Lionel Dawson, the master receiving 20 guineas a year, and the mistress 2s 6d per week with free board and lodgings. As patron, Lionel Dawson also appointed the teachers and inspected the school.


The Emo school had two classrooms, each measuring 27 x 14 feet, with two small kitchens for the master and mistress, a turf-room, a small hall and a spinning room. It had a thatched roof and 16 acres of land where boys were trained in practical tasks such as gardening and farming. Girls, on the other hand, received practical instruction in spinning and needlework. Tablets were used for spelling, reading and arithmetic, and textbooks included ‘Gough, Voster’s and Joyce’s Arithmetic’ and ‘Jackson’s Book-Keeping’. With the coming of the National School system in 1831, textbooks became more standardised, as schools used those published by the Board of Commissioners.


By 1824, some five years before Catholic Emancipation, the Emo Kennel school was admitting both Catholic and Protestant pupils. In the winter of 1823 the average attendance was 171 pupils, although this figure dropped to 105 in the following summer, when children were put to work on farms for the busy season. In 1826 the school was closed by Lionel Dawson, who felt that it should be disassociated from the Kildare Place Society. However, the school appears to have been re-established soon after, when it became part of the National School system.



Emo National School

According to the initial application from the Emo National School, the girls’ and boys’ schools were re-established in 1826 and 1829 respectively. The schoolrooms were a little bigger by this time, and the upper room was used for female pupils, with the boys located in the room below. At various stages in the school’s history the two schools were amalgamated as attendance figures dropped. At such times, the school mistress was demoted to ‘work mistress’, teaching needlework for two hours daily. Regular school hours were from 10-3 each weekday, with the last half hour devoted to religious instruction.


The 3rd Earl of Portarlington seems to have become the patron of the school soon after he acquired Emo Court in 1852. In 1853, an entry in the Commissioner’s register reads: “Lord Portarlington patron of the school thinks Higgins [the new teacher] too young”. He was perhaps correct, as the ensuing entries show that Higgins was regularly admonished for the “backward state of pupils in arithmetic”, for his lack of punctuality and for neglecting the school’s accounts! The Earl’s signature can also be seen on the Commissioner’s registers for the years 1856, 1857 and 1872, when he presumably inspected the school.


The Earl and Countess, having no children of their own, seem to have shown a great deal of interest in the Emo school, even providing entertainment for the school children, a practice which their successors would continue. A note in the register of September 1856, for example, states that the school was closed for a day for a festival given to pupils by the Countess of Portarlington.


In 1873, the Countess of Portarlington was paying ₤10 per annum towards the mistress’s salary and was still providing her with a cottage rent-free. When the Countess died in the following year, the Earl continued to provide this support. At the Countess’s funeral, the children from the girls’ school, dressed in the drapery of mourning, led the procession alongside the under-domestics from Emo Court. In his sermon, the priest observed that the Countess’s presence would be sorely missed at the school:

          No more, bending over the little ones in the school, will she be heard mingling her voice in harmony with theirs.” (Leinster Express Jan. 24th 1874)

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Teachers at Emo National School:


▪ William Doran (1832-51); salary ₤20/year

▪ James Flynn (1851-53) 

▪ Thomas Higgins (1853-59)

▪ George Moore (1859-61)

▪ Peter Kelly (1861-74)

▪ P. Hynan?

▪ Pat Walker (1874)

▪ John F. Cotter (1911-1914); his name can be seen on the 1911 census records when he was living as a boarder in the house of Esther Griffiths at Emo. He was from Cork and was aged 28 and single in 1911.

▪ William Breen (1914-15)



▪ Elizabeth Byrne (1832); salary ₤20/year

▪ Eliza Gaffney (1835-39); salary ₤5-8/year

▪ Anne Mara (1840-41), work mistress from 1841 when the school was incorporated with the boys’ school; salary ₤6-8/year

▪ Maria Daly(?) (1850), work mistress until 1850 when the number of girls learning needlework dropped too low and her salary was cut

▪ Mrs Flanagan (1858-70), work mistress

▪ Kate Cullen (1870-88?)

▪ Jane Cullen (1875)

▪ Brigit Kavanagh (1888-1915); in the 1911 census she was still listed as a national school teacher and was living with her family in a house owned by the Earl of Portarlington. By 1915 she was principal of the girls’ school, while her daughter, Brigit, was junior assistant mistress. Her husband, John Kavanagh, was a teacher at Morette National School (see below).

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Morette National School

The Earls of Portarlington were also patrons of the nearby Morette school, a Roman Catholic school established in 1821 by the Marquis of Landsdowne. By 1832, when it became part of the National School system, the Earl of Portarlington was the main sponsor, donating ₤6 per annum along with the 1.5 acres of land which adjoined the school. This donation was supplemented by fees of 1-2s per quarter, paid by those pupils who could afford it.


The Countess of Portarlington appears to have taken an interest in the school from her arrival at Emo. In an application from the school to the National School Board, dated 1853, the Countess personally vouches for the qualifications of the work mistress, Maria Bannan, announcing her “capable of giving a very good education”. Such was their concern for the education of the girls of the parish, that in 1865, when the work mistress’s salary was withdrawn by the board due to low attendance figures, the Earl and Countess personally paid her salary and did so for at least the next 12 years, rather than dismiss her.


The number of pupils in attendance at the Morette National School varied considerably over the years and while the school could accommodate 110 pupils, the number on the rolls was often far below this. In the summer of 1824, for example, there were 46 pupils, 28 male and 18 female, all but 4 of whom were Roman Catholic. By 1887, there were 95 students on the roll with only 50 in attendance on the day of inspection.


Almost a century later, in 1966, the school was finally closed down due to falling attendance figures.  



Teachers at Morette National School:

Here are the names of some of the teachers who worked at the Morette National School, with approximate dates:

▪ Bartholomew Quinn (1824-61)

▪ John Kavanagh (1861-69)

▪ Maria Bannan, work mistress (1853-60)

▪ Mary Kavanagh, work mistress and assistant (1861-1887)

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Coolbanagher National School

The third school supported by the Earl of Portarlington was the Coolbanagher School, established in 1809. The school was also close to Emo Court and was originally a Protestant boarding school, although by 1824 Catholic pupils outnumbered Protestants. At that time there were 44 pupils in attendance, 26 boys and 18 girls, of which 29 were Catholic. A note in the government report of 1835 observed that on the day of inspection ‘Mr Fraser’ ordered that the Catholic pupils who had not learnt parts of the New Testament by heart should be dismissed from the school or pay double the usual fees. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that by 1872 the pupils were again exclusively Protestant.


We first hear about the patronage of the Earl of Portarlington in 1872, when he endorsed an application to the National School Board for aid towards the master’s salary. The application includes a handwritten letter of support from the Earl. At that time, he was contributing ₤20 per annum towards the payment of the teacher’s salary, and a note in the application claims that this support had been provided for two or three generations. As patron of the school, the Earl was present when the inspector examined the class in September 1872, and on that occasion he personally awarded prizes to the best pupils. The Earl was not the only illustrious visitor to the school however, as the Duchess of Marlborough visited in 1879, examining the children’s progress and awarding prizes.


By 1872, the average attendance at the school had dropped to just 30 pupils. Classes ran from 10-3pm and included 45 minutes of religious instruction every day. At that time, the school had two rooms, the second of which was used exclusively for needlework. It was comparatively well-equipped, with two globes, 10 maps, five blackboards and 2 easels. Books used included those of the National Board as well as Dr. Sullivan’s Grammar, Geography and Spelling books.


The latest application from the Coolbanagher School (dated 1904) still lists the Earl of Portarlington as patron, and the school’s pupils, along with those from the Emo and Morette National Schools, were among those treated to festivities and entertainment at Emo Park at Christmas 1892 and summer 1914.

 In 1911, when Mr and Mrs Keegan left Coolbanagher School for posts in a school in Tullow, the Earl and Countess of Portarlington held a goodbye party at Emo Court in their honour. Lord Portarlington presented the teachers with a magnificent marble clock in recognition of their 16 years of service and with a purse of sovereigns collected by the local parishioners.

In 1911, when Mr and Mrs Keegan left Coolbanagher School for posts in a school in Tullow, the Earl and Countess of Portarlington held a goodbye party at Emo Court in their honour. Lord Portarlington presented the teachers with a magnificent marble clock in recognition of their 16 years of service and with a purse of sovereigns collected by the local parishioners.


Teachers at Coolbanagher School:


  • John Bonnwell (1823-24; age 20)
  • Christopher Johnston (1835)
  • Robert Armstrong (1864-73); salary ₤24/year
  • Charles G. McCarthy (1873-74)
  • Andrew Donald (1876-90)
  • William Armstrong (1890-95)
  • George Charles Keegan (1895-1911)



  • Mary Johnston (1835)
  • Mary Ann Patterson (?) (1872), work mistress
  • Sarah McGowan (1874-78?)
  • Caroline Armstrong (1891-95), work mistress; salary ₤12/year
  • Elizabeth Keegan (1895-1911), work mistress and manual instructress
  • B. Jennings (1914)