In Notes on the Placenames of County Laoighis, Helen M. Roe, the first county librarian in Laois, suggests Emo or Iomadh means ‘emulation’ or ‘contention’. This observation, I suspect is based on the work of John O’Donovan (1806 – 1861), the Gaelic scholar and antiquarian.
In 1824 the Ordnance Survey was established to survey or map the island of Ireland for the purposes of taxation. As part of the work, local place names were corrected and authenticated. In 1830, John O’Donovan was employed as a field-worker, while other field workers worked under his direction. Together, they compiled the Ordnance Survey Field Books which required every townland in the country to be visited and information to be gathered relating to each place name. While undertaking this work, O’Donovan frequently wrote to his supervisor in Dublin, Thomas Larcom. In these letters, known as the Ordnance Survey Letters, he regularly rationalises his translation of a place name (1). He appears to have great difficulty in doing so for Emo, and he can barely hide his frustration; “Iomadh, ’emulation, contention,’ ime, ‘a dam? Which?” (2).
Though he submits there were churches in the area, O’Donovan does not allude to a local monastic settlement tradition that might conceivably account for the name of the area. In the 1905 volume of the Journal of the Archaeological Society of the county of Kildare and Surrounding Districts, Lord Walter Fitzgerald, in a chapter titled The History and Antiquities of the Queens Co Barony of Portnahinch writes; “There is a tradition that a monastery existed at Emo in ancient times, but there appears to be no historical foundation for it.” An accompanying footnote concedes, “An old labourer employed under the gardener, named Dan Deegan, is my authority for this and other items of information.” (3).
Interestingly, the author goes on to describe a baptismal font found in the area; “An interesting relic of pre-reformation times is a large octagonal limestone head of a font, which has been placed on a base in a clump of yew-trees between the house and the garden. From whence it came is unknown, but it is said to have been lying neglected for a long time in the grounds till placed where it now stands by Lord Henry, the third Earl of Portarlington. Each panel of the eight sides of this font in richly carved in high relief with angels and foliage; it bears no date or inscription, but judging by the carving, belongs to the fifteenth century, if not earlier. In one panel is carved a mitred and bearded human head, from whose mouth issues a rope-like band which encircles the font-head. The other panels alternately contain an angel or foliage designs; in one of the latter is seen a pelican, or some bird which is pecking at its breast.” (4).
The baptismal font is currently located in the Church of St John the Evangelist, in Coolbanagher. Helen M. Roe, a scholar of Medieval Irish Art, writing in 1947, revealed it had previously been a garden ornament on Lord Portarlington’s demesne of Emo Park; “It had been suggested that it belonged to the ancient parish church of Ardea or Ardrea, the site of which is no longer known.” Roe goes on to explain; “As most of Emo Park lies within the bounds of Ardrea parish (now united with Coolbanagher parish) and as according to local information a number of burials with some stone-work and sculptured fragments were discovered about a century ago, during the construction of an avenue within the demesne, it is possible that these remains were those of Ardrea church and graveyard, and it is also possible that the font may have been part of the material then discovered.” (5).
The Laois Education Centre (in co-operation with the OPW) has conducted an Emo Court Project and suggests the font may in fact be even older, “the font was rescued in 1927 from Emo Park by the Rev Dudley Fletcher, the rector of Coolbanagher. This may date from the 12th century and almost certainly is from the church of Ardea nearby.” (6).
In a description of the parish of Coolbanagher in the Ordinance Survey Letters, Vol 1, 1838, John O’Donovan states; “There was an old church within Lord Portarlington’s Demesne, for which I could get no name.” He goes on to say; “There was another little church called Killeen a Toagher, – Little church of the Causeway – in the same Demesne.” (7). Writing of the two churches, Lord Fitzgerald suggests; “Neither now exists; the former was probably the ‘Capella Sti. Johannis Baptistae de Emo,’…….the latter name is now known as ‘Kilaatochar’.” (8).
Joseph Kennedy in The Monastic Heritage and Folklore of County Laois, refers to the latter of the two churches; “The ecclesiastical site in the townland of Emo Park is located in the woodland, a few hundred yards from Emo Lake, and about 1 km east of Emo Village. The church that stood there was called Killeenatogher Church. It was levelled at some stage, but there is no record as to when that happened, or even anything relating to the period the church belonged to. Its name Killeenatogher, ‘The Little Church of the Causeway’ (a raised road or track across low or wet ground), would suggest that it was an early church.” (9).
Through the examination of similar place names around the country, the question arises, might the meaning behind the place name be accounted for by the existence of a monastic settlement in the area in medieval times? In The origin and History of Irish Names of Places, PW Joyce suggests that Emy was the first and proper name of Emyvale in Co. Monaghan. He suggests that Iomaidh means a bed or a couch, and it was sometimes applied to a church erected in veneration over the little apartment, where, during life, a saint was accustomed to sleep. For example, there was a church at Clonmacnoise, called Iomdhaigh Chiarain, the bed of St. Ciarain (10).
Joyce also examines Omey Island in Co. Galway. It was he argues “called in the records ‘Iomhaidh Feichin’, which is believed to mean Feichin’s bed or set. For St Feichin is patron, and lived on the island, where a church was built over his bed.” This medieval church was built on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded by St Féichín. The Gaelic name for Omey is Iomaidh Féichín, the bed of Féichín, or Iomaidh for short (11).
Was Emo, similarly, the home of a saint, who came to be revered subsequent to his or her death? Lord Fitzgerald reveals, “As to the meaning of the name, Emo, Dr. Joyce is of the opinion that it is derived from the Irish word “iomdhaidh” or “iomaidh,” meaning a bed or couch, and connected with some now forgotten local saint. The stone beds on which the Irish saints slept are, in some parts of Ireland, still held in great veneration by the peasantry, and resorted to for cures” (12).
An intriguing element to the question is provided by an area called The Clucker Walk within the gardens to the rear of Emo Court. “The name ‘Clucker’ may have come from the Irish word Clochar, meaning a convent, but there is also a story that this part of the garden was where the maids in the house were allowed to come to gossip and relax – hens clucking!” (13). The earliest Christian writings from Ireland alludes to the large numbers of women who lived under religious vows. In the earliest days these women must have lived privately, as it was not until the sixth century that there is evidence of women’s communities in the records. After this, religious women began to live together on land often set aside for their use by their families. Some of the communities were short-lived, while others flourished and have been remembered in place names, stories about saints, and the surviving buildings. Bridget of Kildare (6th century) is the best known of the nuns from early Ireland (14).
Ainmneacha Gaeilge na mBailte Poist was published in 1969 giving the official Irish language names of the post-towns of Ireland, decided on the advice of The Placenames Commission and based on the research of written sources and local evidence which had been undertaken by The Placenames Branch of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (15). There are 26 records from that research for Emo which are visible online in the Placenames Database of Ireland (16). Clearly struggling to determine the meaning of Emo, various possibilities are proposed. One suggestion is; “In Genealogiae Regum et Sanctorum Hib. There is a mention of a saint named Dioma a bishop who was an uncle of St. Mochua of Tighe Mochua in Laoighis. A church named from this saint would be Cill Dhioma, pronounced more or less Kilteema. Such a word could easily breakdown into Imo or Emo by the dropping of the word Cill” (17). Yet another record suggests that the nearby townland of Killimy may be interpreted in two ways, as Coill Imi (The Wood of the Butter), or Cill Iomaidh. The researcher goes on to say that the modern Roman Catholic Church of Emo stands on the townland of Killimy, but, “the grave yard attached is very much older than the church, and this fact possibly indicates the existence there or thereabouts of some ecclesiastical establishments…..The words Cill Iomaidh would seem to meet the modern sound a church erected over a hermits’ bed or cell.” (18).
The Jesuits, when they began to use Emo Court as a seminary in 1930, were unwittingly re-instituting an ecclesiastical tradition in the area, as it seems likely that two separate churches existed in the past in the vicinity of Emo Park. But were either of them connected to a monastic site and a forgotten saint? With the evidence that is currently available, it is impossible to provide a definitive answer. Perhaps there is a need for the excavation of the area of the Emo Court Demesne, where the old baptismal font was located, to determine what other evidence of an ecclesiastical past lies beneath the ground. In the meantime all we are left with is the option to speculate.
- https://archive.org/stream/journalcokildar00socigoog#page/n227/mode/1up, page 196.
- Two Baptismal Fonts in County Laoighis, Helen M. Roe, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Jul., 1947), pp. 81-83, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
- http://www.laoisedcentre.ie/Dreamemo/Projectwork/!Booklet%20A4_pages.pdf, page 19.
- http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/OSI-Letters/QUEENS%20CO%20VOL%201_14%20F%204.pdf, page 240.
- https://archive.org/stream/journalcokildar00socigoog#page/n227/mode/1up, page 195.
- The Monastic Heritage & Folklore of County Laois, Joseph Kennedy, Lisheen Publications, 1 Jan 2003.
- The origin and History of Irish Names of Places, Vol. 3, PW Joyce, Educational Company of Ireland, 1920.
- https://archive.org/stream/journalcokildar00socigoog#page/n227/mode/1up, page 196.
- http://www.laoisedcentre.ie/Dreamemo/Projectwork/!Booklet%20A4_pages.pdf, page 17.