Eric Byrne

What is your own background/ethnic heritage?
I am a Dublin born, second generation Master Stone Mason and I come from a family tradition of working with marble and granite that spans more than five decades. I learned my craft at my father’s side, starting in the monumental business handcrafting headstones stone fireplaces, and then I went on to specialize in bespoke marble and granite kitchens and bathrooms. During the building boom of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years in Ireland things were very busy but when the tiger ceased to roar I had to assess my situation, and figure out a way to adapt my skills to create a new career path. Stone cutting and carving was always of interest to me and I had been asked occasionally to create trophies and presentation pieces from marble and granite for local sports events, retirements etc. The creation of a range of stone giftware was essentially an extension of this and in late 2010, with the support of my wife, Jeanine Hennessy, and extended family Hennessy & Byrne Limited was established.

How long have you been with the company, and what is your position there?
Our business is now up and running two years and my role is essentially that of company director but I am also designer/maker of the Hennessy & Byrne range.

What are the challenges of the profession?
Being an entrepreneur starting a new business in the depths of a recession is very challenging, trying to bring ideas and designs from sketches to the point where you can see your work stocked on the shelves of major retailers takes commitment and more importantly a conviction about what you are trying to achieve. Launching a completely new and unique range of products on to the Irish market against the backdrop of the current economic difficulties was really daunting, however we received a tremendous response and the public really identified with our designs and with the story behind our range.

What are the rewards?
There is a really strong sense of achievement and every new stockist and sale of our work is a little triumph for us especially when we look at how far our endeavour has come in two years and how much we have learned about bringing a product to the market. Indeed our products are now stocked in several retail outlets nationwide including Arnotts and House of Ireland in Dublin, Kilkenny Design Centre, and we also have several stockists in the United States.

What is the company’s core mandate?
Hennessy & Byrne specialize in handcrafting truly unique, high quality gift items and tableware from Connemara Marble, Kilkenny Limestone and Dublin / Wicklow Granite. Our range includes napkin holders, candlesticks, Cheeseboards, and a selection of elegant handcrafted serving utensils all of which showcase the finest native Irish stone. We want to reintroduce the public both at home and abroad to our native marble and granite and to bring this exquisite raw material into the home in the form of classic yet functional pieces.

What are your key products?
Our range includes napkin holders, candlesticks, tea lights, Cheeseboards, salt& pepper sets, clocks and a selection of elegant handcrafted serving utensils all of which showcase the finest native Irish stone The ancient stone used in our range was formed up to 900 million years ago so our giftware is not just ‘made in Ireland’ but crafted literally from Ireland’s bedrock!

What is your marketplace?
Our market is both domestic and export driven. Although our products have all been designed with the Irish consumer in mind our range has a definite appeal for both visitors to Ireland from abroad and those members of the Irish and Celtic Diaspora living all over the world. The North American Market holds enormous potential for us. We already supply several retailers in the U.S. situated from Maine and New Hampshire down to Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. We also sell direct to our customers overseas via our website.

How do you differ from your competition?
Irish stone is a specialist material. While Connemara Marble and other Irish marble is used primarily in jewellery, we are unique in that we are currently the only producer of contemporary Irish stone tableware and in addition all of our work is handcrafted in our workshop situated in Dunboyne in Co. Meath.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Irish economy?
While the current state of the Irish economy no doubt poses serious challenges for every business I genuinely believe that in our area the situation has actually created opportunities for our business that simply did not exist during the boom years. Retailers have been hit hard by the recession but in trying to reinvent themselves to overcome the current adversity we have found that leading buyers are more open to trying out new products in their stores, to deal with local suppliers to a greater degree, and are more inclined to reduce the amount of mass produced products sourced in China or India in their store in favour of more unique craft and artisan products sourced within Ireland.

Are we doing enough to preserve & promote Celtic culture generally?
Absolutely although I think that Celtic culture is evolving and has become much more sophisticated in recent decades. In my experience young people in particular are trying to move away from the clichés of ‘the Quiet Man’, Guinness, sheep and shamrock. While there is a place for the traditional stereotype I think that there is a widespread desire and effort being made to show that modern Irish and Celtic Culture is forward looking, embraces the contemporary and is has real substance . At the heart of Irish and Celtic Culture is resilience, adaptability, intrinsic sense of optimism but most of all creativity be that through Literature, Art, Music, but also in the areas of Science, Technology and Business.

What’s next on the company agenda?
The last twelve months has seen our brand really gain momentum. In January 2012 we launched our e-commerce website and since then we gained several new stockists nationally and internationally. Our exports have tripled in the last year. In September2012, I returned to the origins of my craft in creating a Kilkenny Marble coffee table for inclusion in ‘A Place to Gather’, a showcase of contemporary Irish craft and design organized by the Craft Council of Ireland and curated by Jonathan Legge as part of the London Design Festival 2012. We received a great reaction our table in London and with that came a lot of extra publicity for our business; newspaper articles, magazine features and even an appearance on RTE’s ‘Nationwide’. Many of the pieces from ‘A Place to Gather’ including the Kilkenny Marble table by Hennessy& Byrne were subsequently selected to form a showcase of Irish Craft and Design in the Justus Lipsius building, headquarters of the Council of the European Union in Brussels, as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the E.U. from January to June 2013. However the opportunities didn’t stop there. We were thrilled when in addition to this honour, we were commissioned to create a second larger table for the Presidential Suite, which we made this time in stunning Connemara Marble with solid Irish Oak legs. Thankfully after just two years our business is steadily growing and hopefully with hard work, and a little luck this will continue; we just count ourselves to be really fortunate that we can successfully work doing something we love. We have moved to a bigger workshop and hopefully by the end of this year we will be in a position to create jobs and perhaps give others hit by the recession here a chance of a new beginning. The future for our fledgling business is certainly looking bright for 2013 and we believe that the best is yet to come!