Date: Sunday, 22nd June, 2014
Mid-summer, with its long halcyon days, is always an exciting time of year in Ireland and this was especially so when Cork Chapter members and friends departed by coach from Little Island on their much anticipated day out on Sunday 22nd June, 2014.
Having rendezvoused with our Kerry members at an agreed point off the M8, the rest of our coach journey was an easy and pleasant one, arriving in good time for morning refreshments at the CaToCa Tea Rooms within the desmesne of Emo Court. Here, we thoroughy relaxed and, little by little, found ourselves before the formal neo-Classical Palladian mansion entrance.
The house is unique for many reasons, not least because it is one of the few Irish historic homes designed by James Gandon (1790) for his client, John Dawson, the first Earl of Portarlington. 18th-century visitors to the house must have been impressed (as were were on that June morning) by the entrance front of the building, dominated, as it is, by a pediment supported by four graceful Ionic pillars. The Earl’s coat of arms fills the pediment and to the left and right of it, are 18th-century friezes depicting agriculture and the arts. Heraldic tigers guard the entrance steps setting the tone and mood for our progress into the house.
But before entering, let us pause for a moment to consider the owners of this wonderful place. It is a fortunate house as it remained in the hands of the Earls of Portarlington until 1920. In 1930 it came into the possession of the Jesuits, and Major Cholmeley Cholmeley-Harrison became the owner in 1969. Happily, the house then underwent a process of restoration providing pleasure for visitors like us to enjoy today.
There is much in the interior of this house with which to be charmed, but what commanded our attention were the three rooms comprising the marble saloon, the present day library and the drawing room. The marble saloon’s double dome height and magnificent coffered ceiling just took one’s breath away. In the distant past, this room must have had many a story to tell as it linked the dining room and the present library. Guests could wander through the saloon or linger there as they partook in the sumptious late Georgian and Victorian house balls. But, leaving my imagination to one side, we were gratified to see the coat-of-arms of both the Major and the Earls of Portarlinghton side-by-side in the relatively recently restored inlaid parquet floor - thus bringing the story of the ownership of the house together in a meaningful way. In the library, the beautiful rococo carrara marble fireplace, amongst other delights, were warmly appreciated too. But it was the sheer opulence and grandeur of the drawing room that made it the most impressive of the three rooms. Having the proportions of a long gallery, it is a spectacular space divided into three parts by green marble Ionic columns topped with gilt capitals. The décor is green reflecting both the green of the marble inside and the green of the garden outside – an amazing room!
By early afternoon, we had lunched and were eager to explore Russborough House with our superb guide, Joan Griffith. Like Emo, Russborough is a fine example of Palladian architecture and the group was keen to compare the two houses. Russborough was built for Joseph Leeson (later to be made 1st Earl of Milltown) in 1755 and was designed by Richard Cassels. Like Emo, Russboro also benefited from solid ownership right up to the early 20th-century, when it passed through a number of owners, including the philanthropists, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit.
Russborough has been described as the most beautiful house in Ireland and our group were really interested in seeing the displays of fine stucco work by the La Franchini. We were led up the magnificent mahoganony private staircase and gazed in wonder and delight at the sheer beauty of the plasterwork ceilings and friezes. We were thrilled by the proportions of the state rooms, the priceless paintings and fine furniture, the rich carpets and tapestries, the exqusite porcelain, silver and bronzes. The group could only agree that Russborough is truly ‘a Temple of Art’.
By now, late afternoon was beckoning and we had a long coach journey ahead of us. And, finding ourselves outdoors once more looking south-east across to Lugnaquilla, the highest of the Wicklow Mountains, we resolved to visit Russborough again soon as we had only seen a fraction of what the house and parkland have to offer. But just then, tea, brack and the homeward journey was on offer and we could not stay.
Thanks to the OPW at Emo Court, the staff at Russborough, the Chapter Committee, members and friends for making our mid-summer event such a memorable one.