Meeting Eric O’Neill in a Thomas Street basement seems far removed from his usual working habitat. He is manning the floor at Made In Limerick, a local craft cooperative that he chairs. While customers come in and out, the sounds of nearby construction are a reminder of Eric’s life before he became an artist blacksmith.
Originally from Patrick Street, it was in Garryowen that he grew up before spending a number of years in the steel industry in Europe, eventually returning to Ireland in 1997.
Back in Limerick, Eric built a workshop beside his home in Cappamore, to explore his more creative side. “I was very creative with metal work, but the stuff I did on site was very functional. I started creating furniture and gates for home.”
Just as he was turning 40, he encountered Mayo blacksmith John Hogan on RTÉ’s ‘Nationwide’. “Instantly I said to my wife Ellen that what I wanted for my 40th was a lesson on what that guy was doing, and she said ‘could you not pick anything easier?’ he recalls, laughing.
Eric completed a short course in the UK, bought a gas forge and an anvil, and started to delve into what was then a hobby. Then the recession hit.
“In October 2008, when all sites practically closed down overnight, I had a simple decision – either emigrate or retrain.” And so his journey of learning began, which included a stint in Hereford where he received his accreditation.
Up to that point, he was unaware of a family history with the craft. “My grandfather was probably one of the last working blacksmiths in Limerick, who worked in a forge that was across from Nancy Blakes. I never met the man or learned from him. In the fifties, we had a craft that was vibrant in every village and town in Ireland. With the introduction of the tractor and the end of the horse era, all the revenue from the blacksmith’s forge was wiped out overnight.”
Eric adds that most blacksmiths encouraged their children away from the trade. “My dad became a fireman. It’s ironic – his father lit a fire everyday, my dad put out a fire every day, and now his son is once again lighting a fire.”
As an artist blacksmith, his commissions have appeared in numerous public spaces around the city and county, such as Corpus Christi Church in Moyross, Killinure National School, and a sculpture that he unveiled at the Cappamore library last year as part of the 1916 commemorations.
Furthermore, he was responsible for developing the forging facilities at LCFE Cappamore, which now hosts the only blacksmithing course in the country. In the past two years, two cohorts have passed out with City and Guilds accreditation.
Recently, he was responsible for forging a Swedish cross pein hammer for the Viking funeral of one of his students, Patric Salo, who passed away suddenly last December.
It is deep and meaningful pieces like that which continue to inspire the acclaimed blacksmith. “It’s not all about pounds, shillings, and pence; it’s about being part of humanity. Pieces that have meaning are what really excite me. That’s what I want to put my heart and soul into.”