After 1922, when the Irish Free State was founded, it became virtually impossible to dispose of country houses in Ireland and a number of those that came on the market were acquired by religious institutions. Many a Georgian niche was adorned by an italian-made plaster statue of a saint, wearing a halo of coloured lights. With the passage of time, and a fall in the numbers of those giving their lives to the Church, some of these houses have come back on the market and are once again in private hands. Emo Court, for instance, was bought from the Jesuits in 1969 by Mr Cholmeley-Harrison and turned back into a private house - a courageous venture.
Emo was an Italianized form of the Irish name of the local townland which was called Imoe; there is no connection with Palladio's Villa Emo near Venice. The house was designed originally in about 1790 by James Gandon for the first Earl of Portarlington, who was one of those responsible for bringing Gandon to Ireland. Gandon also designed the nearby church at Coolbanagher. Dr Edward McParland has described
Emo as 'Gandon's anti-Wyatt manifesto, rising in defence of Wyatt's greatest Irish house, Castlecoole'. An Ionic portico dominnates the central part of the entrance front which is flanked by two projecting bays making it in all a nine-bay composition. Coadestonefriezes representing the arts and a pastoral scene, dated 1794, crown their blind attics.
Emo Court was not completed when the first Earl died on campaign during the 1798 rebellion and the second Earl, who was very short of money, neglected it until 1834-'36, when he employed the fashionable English architect, Lewis Vulliamy to make improvements. The latter completed the garden front, giving it its portico of four giant lonic columns with a straight balustraded entablature, and also worked on the interior assisted by two Dublin architects, A. and J. Williamson. The great rotunda, its copper dome rising from behind the garden front portico and also prominent on the entrance front, was completed in 1860 by William Caldbeck of Dublin.
In part of the grounds owned by the Forestry Commission stands an intriguing folly that is earlier than the present house. It consists of a triumphal arch surmounted by an octagon reminiscent of Wyatt's great Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford (1773). Although in a dangerous most of the cut-stone ornamentation has survivedand the room at the top which must once have enjoyed views of the park was probably used for dining. The monument is now hidden by Fir trees.
The present owner, Mr. Cholmelery-Harrison, undertook the monumental task of restoring the House single-handedly. Siena marble was brought from Italy to restore the pilasters in the great round room whose bases had been removed when the room was combined into one with its neighbour to form the chapel. The single storey apse-ended entrance hall has recently been painted in trompe l'oeil to represent the plaster decoration which gandon intended for the room but which was never carried out. Mr Cholmeley-Harison has also spent the last ten years in the creation of the picturesque garden extending to nearly fifty acres. This has improved the setting of the house immeasurably as it focuses attention on the lake below and gives the visitor a chance to enjoy the architecture of the house from different standpoints.