Belvedere and Emo: A Tale of Two Houses
Updated: Jul 14, 2021
This article was published as an 'Autumn Series' in the Westmeath Examiner on Tuesday 24th November 2020 - full article and gallery of images below
FULL ARTICLE AND IMAGES BELOW:
Every county in Ireland has its own unique story to tell, each one full of historical & architectural significance. In the midlands region alone, the spread of castles and grand country houses is truly impressive and a huge draw for tourists every year.
One of the positive things to come out of the lockdown restrictions was an increased willingness to exploring what’s on our own doorsteps, one which is sure to continue when the country starts to open up again over the coming weeks.
While many of these grand houses and castles have had to close their doors to the public for the next few weeks, some have continued to allow access to their vast grounds and estates during Level 5 restrictions. Two worthy examples are Westmeath’s own Belvedere House, Gardens and Park, and Emo Court in Co. Laois
Belvedere House, Gardens and Park
A magnificent 160-acre estate sitting on the shores of Lough Ennell, Belvedere is a brilliant day out for all the family. Its scenic location is a huge draw, with six kilometres of tranquil lakeshore and woodland walks. The house itself is an impressive 18th century Georgian villa, designed by the renowned German architect Richard Castle for Robert Rochfort, the First Earl of Belvedere. It occupies a commanding location: the view from the main terrace across the lake and of the surrounding woodlands is utterly jaw-dropping.
On site you will find a 19th century Victorian Walled Garden which houses one of Ireland's finest collections of rare and exotic plants. Children will be kept well-entertained, seeking out the magical Fairy Garden in the ‘enchanted glen’. Not only that, there are four great play areas including a 30 metre zipline for the more adventurous.
What’s most fascinating of all though is the history of the estate, not least the intriguing story of the so-called ‘Wicked Earl’ of Belvedere and the wild tales of sibling rivalry which led to the construction of the ‘Jealous Wall’, Ireland’s largest folly. With unfounded accusations of an affair between his wife and younger brother Arthur, and jealousy of his other brother George, an 18th century soap opera would be a good analogy.
The striking Gothic mass of the ‘Jealous Wall’ is a vast structure at over twenty metres tall. Indeed, this was the idea. After a feud with George who owned the nearby Tudenham House, the Earl had the stone wall constructed in 1760, primarily to obstruct any viewpoint of his brother’s allegedly more impressive residence. Tudenham was designed by the same architect as Belvedere, but sadly now is a ruinous state. And so, the ‘Jealous Wall’ came into being, one of three Gothic follies on site: the Gothic Arch and Gothic Gazebo are both accessible from the Woodland Walk.
It is thought the octagonal Gazebo served as a viewing point for visitors to the estate, offering impressive views over the lake and surrounding lands. The Gothic Arch was originally built as a mock entrance to the estate and is fairy tale-like with its turreted openings and striking oriel window.
Due to current restrictions, the main house remains closed. Happily, the main grounds and gardens of the estate are still open, with an online timed-ticketing system in operation to allow for social distancing.
The CaToCa café on-site is currently open for takeaway only (update: as of July 2021, they are also offering outdoor dining).
Emo Court and Parklands
Another midlands’ treasure is the beautiful Emo Court and Parklands. Located just a short distance from Portlaoise, this magnificent stately home stands tall on an impressive estate with grand formal gardens, and beautiful woodland and lakeside walks. While the main house is currently closed for restoration works, the grounds are open all year round. Emo Court is a quintessential neo-classical mansion, set in the shadow of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, and was the seat of the Earls of Portarlington until 1920. James Gandon, best-known as architect of two of Dublin’s most iconic buildings, the Custom House and the Four Courts, set to work on Emo Court in 1790. However, the building that now stands was not completed until some seventy years later, and after Gandon’s death.
Follow the lakeside looped walk and enjoy one of the best viewing points: the house and the vast estate are slowly revealed to you through the trees and across the water. It makes for an exceptional panorama with the classical symmetry and elegance of the house shown off to its best advantage, not to mention the perfectly manicured gardens.
There are also wonderful views up the mile-long Wellingtonia Avenue, flanked on both sides by majestic sequoia trees which were planted in 1853. It really is quite the dramatic entrance to a stately home.
The woodland walks are peaceful and a little slice of heaven, walking under a canopy of trees with splashes of colour provided by a variety of plants and shrubs. There are also some wonderful classical statues dotted throughout the formal lawns. It’s worth noting that Irish red squirrels are native to the estate so keep your eyes peeled. You may also spot some rare birds including buzzards and egrets.
A little bit of history: when the remaining Portarlingtons left Emo Court in 1920, the house fell into decline. In 1930, it was purchased by the Jesuits for use as a seminary. Renowned writer Benedict Kiely spent a year there as a novice: Emo provides a setting for his novel There was an Ancient House. Major Cholmeley-Harrison took over Emo Court in the 1960s and so began an enormous renovation project, restoring it to its former glory. He opened the beautiful gardens and parkland to the public before finally presenting the entire estate to the people of Ireland in 1994. Today Emo Court and its gardens are owned and managed by the Office of Public Works.
The CaToCa café on-site is currently open for takeaway only