heritage ireland

Ireland's largest Norman castle was built by a womaniser who ended up being decapitated

Archaeologist Neil Jackman explores two of Ireland’s most beautiful castles – Emo Court in Laois and Trim Castle in Meath.

FANCY STRETCHING THE legs over the long weekend? In the latest edition of the Hidden Heritage series, we have more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland. In this edition we take a trip to the elegant Emo Court in County Laois, and Ireland’s largest Norman castle at Trim.

As ever, I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions. If you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

Emo Court, County Laois

Emo Court is a country villa designed by architect James Gandon (1743-1823), best known for his great public buildings including the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin. With a demesne of over 4,500 hectares, Emo Court was the second-largest enclosed estate in Ireland after the Phoenix Park in Dublin when it was built. It recalls an era when the Anglo-Irish ascendancy was at its height and the so-called Big Houses dominated the Irish rural landscape.

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The house itself is a stunning example of the neo-classical style inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome with ionic columns and a large dome. Gandon designed Emo Court in 1790 for John Dawson, the First Earl of Portarlington. The earl died during the 1798 Rebellion when he caught pneumonia while guarding French prisoners in Mayo. As a result, the house remained incomplete.

Dawson was succeeded by his son, the 2nd Earl, who carried out some work in the 1830s. During this phase the garden was completed and work commenced on the interior, but the Earl’s financial difficulties prevented further progress. Starting in 1860, the 3rd Earl oversaw building of the copper dome on the rotunda, as well as work on the interior and construction of a bachelor wing. As a result, Emo Court became the setting for many lavish social events during the second half of the 19th century.

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When the Portarlingtons left Emo Court in 1920 and the estate was sold to the Irish Land Commission, the house fell into decline. The Jesuit order purchased the house in 1930 and used it as a seminary, ensuring that it did not fall into decay like similar houses around Ireland. The noted Jesuit photographer Fr Frank Browne, who took thousands of photos documenting Irish life, lived here from 1930 to 1957.

In 1969, the order sold Emo Court to Major Cholmley-Harrison. He was a stockbroker who had served as a Royal Marine during World War II. He had previously owned Woodstown House in County Waterford but when he rented that house to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967 it became the focus of unwanted media attention and he decided to look for a new residence. It is said that he stopped off to view Emo on his way to the Irish Derby at the Curragh and decided to purchase the house from the Jesuits for £40,000.

He began the laborious process of restoring the house and its grounds. He succeeded in restoring the gardens and reinstating many of the important architectural features of Emo Court, some of which had been carefully removed and put in storage by the Jesuits. He even found pieces of marble columns that had been dismantled by the Jesuits and scattered throughout the gardens.

In 1994, Major Cholmley-Harrison donated the house and estate to the Irish people. He decided to hand the estate over to Ireland as he had no son and his daughters all had homes elsewhere. He did not want the estate to become another country club and thought it would be safer in the hands of the Irish people. He continued to live at Emo Court until his death in 2008. A cherry blossom has been planted on the grounds in memory of him and his generosity.

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Today Emo Court is managed by the Office of Public Works, and you can enjoy a guided tour of the building. For entry fees and opening times please see here. There is free entry to all OPW Heritage Sites on the first Wednesday of every month. At this time of year, just as the bluebells are appearing and red squirrels flit among the trees, Emo Court is a truly wonderful place for a walk. We have just launched our free audioguide the Laois Heritage Trail to help you explore the superb heritage sites that Laois has to offer, like Emo Court, the Rock of Dunamase, Aghaboe Abbey and more. Download your free Android or iOS audiovisual app from here.

Trim Castle, County Meath

Trim Castle is the largest and undoubtedly one of the most impressive Norman castles in Ireland. Standing at an important crossing point on the banks of the River Boyne – which gave the town its name coming from Áth Truim, ‘the ford of the elder trees’ –  Trim Castle was constructed by the powerful Norman lord Hugh de Lacy in the 1170s.

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Hugh was described by the Norman chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis as

‘…dark with sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy’.

He sounds like The Hound from Game of Thrones! Giraldus’s rather unflattering description didn’t seem to hold Hugh back as he appeared to have success with the ladies, as Giraldus further remarks that, ‘after the death of his wife he was a womaniser and enslaved by lust, not just for one woman, but for many’. His ambitions in the bedroom and the world of politics combined when he wed Rose, the daughter of the Irish High King, Ruardri O’Conor. This was interpreted as a grave threat by King Henry II, who had feared that de Lacy was positioning himself to become an independent king in Ireland.

Not long after his marriage, Hugh de Lacy went to Durrow in Laois in 1186 to construct a castle to fortify the area. As he inspected the works, he bent down to show an Irish labourer how to properly use a pickaxe. Seizing this opportunity, one of his advisers, a young Irish noble called Gilla-gan-inathair Ua Miadhaigh, struck down de Lacy with an axe he had hidden under his cloak, decapitating the mighty Lord of Meath. Gilla-gan-inathair, whose name literally means ‘youth without bowels’, probably reflecting his skinny frame, fled the scene and managed to escape.

King Henry II was overjoyed to hear of the demise of this powerful but troublesome magnate, and as Hugh’s eldest son Walter was not of age to inherit, the king incorporated all de Lacy’s vast and hard-won estates as Crown lands and ensured the revenues filled his own purse.

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Walter finally inherited Trim and his father’s lands in 1189, but he too fell out of favour with the Crown when he joined forces with John de Courcy in attacking the lands of Prince John, who was in rebellion against King Richard the Lionheart. John never forgot the insult, and when he became King after Richard’s death, he punished Walter by seizing the land and eventually forced him to flee to France. It was only after King John signed the Magna Carta along with a general reconciliation with the Barons that Walter was allowed to resume control of his estates, although he would remain in chronic debt to the Crown.

It was during Walter’s time at Trim that the castle was refortified and an extra storey was added to the keep. Walter died in 1241, outliving both his son and grandson. What was left of his estates was divided between his two granddaughters, Maud and Margery. Maud was granted Trim, and she married the powerful Geoffrey de Geneville. They brought prosperity to Trim: they redeveloped the keep, added new buildings like a fashionable great hall and refortified the walls of the town.

Eventually the castle passed to their eldest daughter Joan, who married the infamous Roger Mortimer. He would become notorious in English history as the man who had an affair with Queen Isabella and contrived the death of King Edward II by using a red hot poker in a manner not conducive to good bowel health.

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In its later history, Trim Castle became a Yorkist stronghold during the Wars of the Roses, but by the end of the seventeenth century it had fallen into disrepair and decay. It passed into state ownership in 1993, and featured prominently in the filming of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. As the castle was never converted into a grand house in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, unlike Kilkenny Castle for example, it remained largely unaltered from medieval times.

Today it is one of the best places to get a really great sense of the architecture of a medieval fortress, and you can enjoy one of the finest guided tours in the country from the excellent OPW staff [I have to say that, I used to work there!]. You can get more information about entry fees and opening times here. Remember the first Wednesday of the month is free entry to all OPW Heritage Sites!

When you are finished your tour, try to take the time to do the River Walk: simply cross the wooden bridge that leads from the carpark and follow the path alongside the Boyne. The walk takes no more than around twenty minutes, and you will pass through several beautiful medieval ruins before ending up in a really nice old pub on the banks of the river –  a perfect way to reward yourself after all that exploring!


Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog where I have more suggestions for great places to visit. You can also download audioguides from my website, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download. 

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook Twitter  and Instagram

Read more from Neil here > 

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