Benefactor who gave Emo Court to State

 

Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison:CHOLMELEY DERING Cholmeley-Harrison, who has died just short of his 100th birthday, was a significant benefactor to the people of Ireland as he bought, restored and presented to the State one of our most important country houses, Emo Court in Co Laois.

The design for Emo was commissioned by the first Earl of Portarlington in 1790 from James Gandon, the architect of the Custom House and the Four Courts. It is one of his few domestic buildings - though domestic is not an adjective one would apply to Emo. It is magnificent rather than homely. The earl died of pneumonia during the 1798 rebellion.

His heir, though lavishly stocking the wine cellars, only finished the garden front. He is reputed to have said that "one nought more or less made no difference to a bill" and to have died with only two shillings left. Emo was not completed until 1860.

Cholmeley-Harrison was born in the family home at Bearsted in Kent, the son of a colonel in the British army. He added the additional name of Cholmeley to his surname in 1975. He went to Stowe, then a newly founded public school with a charismatic head master, JF Roxburgh, who said: "Every boy who goes out of Stowe will know beauty when he sees it for the rest of his life." From there he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read classics and then became a successful stockbroker, being a member of the London Stock Exchange for 32 years.

During the war, he joined the Royal Marines and rose to the rank of major. In 1945, he bought Woodstown overlooking Waterford harbour. He let it in the 1960s for a summer to the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy and her family. The ensuing public interest in the house encroached so much on his privacy that he made the decision to sell it.

In 1969, on his way to the Curragh to see the Irish Derby, he saw the sale notices up for Emo and announced to his companions that he thought he would buy it. "You must be mad" was their rejoinder.

The interior of the house was in poor condition and had been much altered. The central hall had been turned into a chapel by the Society of Jesus, who had bought it as a novitiate in 1930. One of the Jesuits who lived there was Fr Browne, the outstanding photographer. Benedict Kiely spent a year there as a novice and his novel There was an Ancient House is set there.

Cholmeley-Harrison bought it from the Jesuits with about 300 acres, half of which was the lake, for £42,000.

He set about the costly restoration with tremendous vitality and energy. The London architect Sir Alan Richardson, an authority on Georgian architecture, was commissioned to oversee the work of the local craftsmen. The project gave great employment in neighbourhood.

The remarkable parquetry floor with its elaborate pattern was put back piece by piece in the central rotunda. Fortunately, the floor had been found in an outhouse. He also discovered the marble mantelpieces and other decorative pieces that had been banished during the previous occupancy because they incorporated nudes in their design. In the grounds, he planted many rare trees creating an arboretum which he opened for the enjoyment of the public at week-ends.

He gained the respect and good will of his neighbours and employees though he was meticulous and very strict as to how the work should be carried out.

The future of Emo, he felt, would be secure only if it was in State ownership and though the OPW, for lack of funds, was initially reluctant to take it over, he persisted and in 1994 he handed the house and grounds to the State, with the proviso that he could remain in an apartment there for the rest of his life.

The contents of the house, which he had collected or came from his family, were bought by the State and the house and grounds are now open to the public.

Cholmeley-Harrison regularly attended the nearby church at Coolbanagher, which Gandon had also designed. Here, too, he was generous with his gifts, commissioning urns that had been part of the original plans and also making an endowment for its future.

He was an invalid for the last few years before his death.

He married first Corisande, the adopted daughter of the fifth Lord Bellew of Barmeath, Co Louth; the marriage was dissolved in 1946. He was secondly married to Mary Elizabeth Roberts, née Mattison, and thirdly to Christine Cynthia Manifold, née Veasey, who died in 1996. He had three daughters from his first marriage, one of whom predeceased him.

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Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison, born September 9th, 1908; died July 18th, 2008