Irish marble’s purpose is being reinvented with the home in mind, writes Carol O’Callaghan.
Connemara marble has found a new application away from churches, and leprechaun ornaments which were once so beloved by American tourists, looking to take a piece of old Ireland home with them.
Reinventing its use is Eric Byrne, whose background as a stonemason, coupled with his love of marble as a material, fostered the desire to reinvigorate the stone. It turned a recession-hit livelihood making fireplaces and kitchen and bathroom work surfaces into a success, by taking marble and fashioning it into useful and beautiful items for the domestic table top.
“Connemara marble, and marble in general, had fallen out of favour with designers,” Eric explains. “It had been used widely in the seventies and eighties but was produced to a very poor standard and had become synonymous with tacky.”
Despite its decline, Eric recognised that hundreds of years ago people understood the stone’s value and beauty. “You just have to look at cities like Paris and Rome to see the amazing marble art in the form of detailed architecture, mosaic floors, intricate inlaid fireplaces and sculpture.”
So it was this value he sought to build upon and to add practical function for everyday use.
“I wanted to reintroduce Irish people to their native stone,” he says, “and to foster an understanding and appreciation of it, by making it relevant to today and bringing it into the home in the form of beautiful, functional pieces for contemporary living, but with a story to tell.”
He began in 2008 by looking at what he could make in an Ireland deep in recession, making trips to exhibitions in Europe to see what other countries were doing with their indigenous stones. “I could see different uses there for the stone, like baths, which you wouldn’t see here,” he says, “but I wanted to make something that was exportable.”
These observations helped inform the design of the products he now sells in retailers like House of Ireland, Serendipity and Kilkenny Design, and online. So expect to find cheeseboards, cake slices and cheese knives with marble handles, salt and pepper cruets, napkin rings and egg cups.
Prices start at €5 for a worry stone, going up to €300 for a set comprising a cheeseboard and knife with a complex herringbone construction from his Marmar range which uses a mix of traditional green Connemara marble and a sparkling white marble from Macedonia.
As appreciation for the products grows, ornamental leprechaun-loving tourists have now been replaced by more design aware and discerning visitors, many of whom buy Irish craft as a memento of their time here.
Some drop by the Russborough House Estate in Blessington, Co Wicklow during the summer season to visit Eric and his wife Jeanine Hennessy, at their marbleworks located in a yard that also houses other craft makers including a ceramicist, a weaver, and a blacksmith who, rather than making horseshoes, makes sculpted pieces.
But before the stone even gets to the marble works for time-consuming and careful cutting and polishing, it has to come from a quarry in Recess, Co Galway which has been in the Joyce family for generations.
It’s just one of a number of quarries providing marble to feed a growing appetite abroad. Try doing a quick search on line to see an extensive list of results, and an even bigger one if you type in the words Irish green marble — the name it’s known by internationally. It reveals how popular the stone is for architectural projects in places like Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi for homes, corporate buildings and hotels.
A little closer to Ireland, the marble found another use when a Parisian gallerist saw some of Eric’s products at the London design show ‘Tent’ last year. He was so impressed he asked him to make a vase. But it’s not just marble getting the tableware treatment, he’s also hewing Irish granite and limestone into a product to last.
“Our tableware is in no way a disposable product,” Eric says, “but rather a unique little piece of history to be used, enjoyed and cherished.”
This history is contained in a booklet that comes with each item and tells of the marble being an astonishing 750 million years old, which gives it sustainability credentials too, making it a product for our times — for all times, in fact.
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