The Cloughjordan Ecovillage: how a one-horse-town is transforming into an experimental eco enclave
Although brimming with historical bric a crac (fulacht fia, cairns, ring forts, bog butter (literally, butter found in a bog)), as well as being the hailing place of poet Thomas MacDonagh, Cloughjordan is not somewhere you would particularly remark upon when passing through. It’s a typical rural Irish village, or as one long-term resident described it: ‘a sleepy, one-horse town’.
But, there’s an aspect of Cloughjordan that’s unique – Ireland’s first, and so far only, eco-village nestles on 67 acres of fertile land just adjacent to the main street.
‘The Village’ traces its origins back to 1999, to a meeting in the Central Hotel in Dublin hosted by two members of the Dublin Food Co-operative, Gregg Allen and Gavin Harte. In attendance at the meeting were a group of individuals who, for one reason or another, were hopeful for a life far from the (at that time) burgeoning yowls of a fattening Celtic Tiger and the values it espoused. Those convinced agreed to subscribe to the project with a €700 contribution.
That initial €700 contribution would mushroom to €15,000 over the next eight or so years as an ambitious plan to ‘build a sustainable village that would be a model of low-impact living for the 21st century’ dealt with the inevitable bureaucratic pitfalls (mostly planning-related) as it plodded its way stoically towards realisation.
Stepping off the train at Cloughjordan station, I’m stunned by the stillness of the place. It’s unearthly quiet. And raining. I walk the kilometre to the old village main street, the light drizzle turning into a downpour that will trap me in the town’s café for most of the morning.
I had been given a tour of the project in more clement conditions the previous week. First impressions of The Village call to mind the Truman Show crossed with Grand Designs. Houses of various shapes and made from diverse materials (cob, hay-bales, wooden frames, concrete – all sourced locally as far as possible) are scattered across the site, some still under construction.
Many of the lots are undeveloped, stark concrete rectangles with black bag-covered pipes poking up like rigid eels, waiting to connect an as yet unimagined, low-impact building to the village’s district heating system. Grass grows in unruly clumps between the houses and, at the time of my first visit, there was little human activity apparent. Cloughjordan eco-village looks, to put it mildly, unfinished.
“It looks very ragged – it looks half-built, half-done…” says Alan Quinlan, one of the first to move into The Village. “But [where] other people see mess, we see biodiversity,”
On this second visit, I’m trapped in the café for a good two hours while the sky collapses in on the hamlet. I can’t get through to Davie Philip, founder of sustainability organisation Cultivate and my Cloughjordan spirit guide, so I drink too many cups of coffee and buttonhole the other café customers to harvest their thoughts on The Village.
Perhaps it’s just the fact that I eventually have to identify myself as a journalist, but there’s a definite element of caginess to contend with. Liz, the café-owner, hovers on the edge of my interview with Alan. I invite her to join us. “They used to trot me out for business-related stuff. But not anymore – I’m not sure I still follow the party line.” Tense laughter follows. “I’m not sure there’s a party line to follow,” says Alan.
If The Village has a ‘party line’, it’s nothing too sinister. There’s no hidden conspiracy to siphon off the world’s remaining fossil fuel supplies and convert everyone to solar energy, or force the population of Ireland to wear hemp. As the day progresses, I gather that following the ‘party line’ amounts to being positive about the future of the village, and displaying a united front to the general public. But you can’t blame the residents for their guardedness – theirs is the wariness of the frontiers person.
Sustainable Projects Ireland, the not-for-profit educational charity set up as the basis for Cloughjordan eco-village, bought the site for the build for €1,000,000, shortly before the 2007/2008 economic crash. Greg Allen, project manager for the construction process, emphasises that it’s not only the eco-focused aspects of the project that are groundbreaking – the capital-sourcing initiatives to get it off the ground also displayed ingenuity.
“There are a whole load of elements that are innovative to this project… we set milestones… and [when] we achieved those milestones we went on to the next stage and asked [the subscribers] to put in another amount of money… all the way up to securing planning permission. ”
The principle that working co-operatively generates opportunities that can’t be generated when people work in isolation is both the strength and the weakness of The Village. Like any co-operative project, niggling disagreements about the best way to execute shared visions can hamper progress and disillusion participants.
Inevitably, some have withdrawn from the communal aspects of the project along the way, frustrated by endless discussions. Other subscribers were forced out of the project by financial constraints, as time ticked by and that first investment in 1999 still hadn’t resulted in a home by 2007.
However, although the immediate impression given by the rag-tag distribution of houses on the site and the untended verges is one of stagnation, there are pockets of energy and innovation that are revealed when speaking to the people involved.
The rain having subsided (sort of), and phone contact still not having been established, I left the café on Cloughjordan main street and plunged into The Village itself in search of the irrepressible Davie. I found him almost immediately, clad in a blue rain poncho and deep in conversation.
He greeted me warmly, before setting off across the soggy terrain in the direction of the new enterprise centre at the north end of the village, dubbed the ‘WeCreate Workspace’. This centre, described on its own dedicated website as offering ‘workspace for the eco entrepreneur’, is an injection of new energy into the flagging momentum of The Village.
Davie concedes that the promise of eco-friendly housing and a like-minded community is no longer enough to attract new buyers, especially in fraught economic conditions. There are still approximately fifty sites left to develop (exact numbers were difficult to come by) and the impression given is that up-take on these sites has slowed somewhat.
The WeCreate building is big, bright and airy, with a central atrium flanked by working spaces that will be rented out for use by craft people. As Davey and I chat, participants in the design course that’s going on that week mill about on their lunch break. There is an atmosphere of industry and engagement here that isn’t apparent elsewhere in the village to the casual observer.
Davie is most excited about the currently-in-development digital fabrication lab (‘FabLab’), which is to be the country’s first provider of a 3D printing service. FabLabs are a global phenomenon, with 150 worldwide, and the installation of Ireland’s first in the WeCreate centre is definitely a coup for The Village.
“What we’re trying to do is mainstream sustainability, make it acceptable, show that it’s a better quality of life we have because we play a part in how our food is produced, we have high performance, warm houses that aren’t damp, that are bright…”
Apart from acting as a living example of how a low-impact lifestyle can work, The Village also offers courses in skills like permaculture, design principles, eco-building and horticulture.
Davie is brimming with ideas about how to deal with the new and unexpected challenges economic upheaval has brought. He describes a ‘fractional ownership’ arrangement for a property in The Village where the multiple proprietors will live in one part of the building and take turns using the rest of the space for diverse commercial purposes (‘a breakfast bar in the morning, a tapas bar at night’). The idea is to ensure maximum use of the resource available, with no wasted ‘idle’ time. And, like most aspects of The Village, the aim with this project is to test a model that can be applicable elsewhere.
“My biggest hope for this project, the co-housing learning space, is that it could be a model for any buildings that aren’t fit for purpose in any neighbourhood, or any town or village. So there’s city neighbourhoods with big office blocks that are empty, they’re bringing the price of the whole area down, they’re degrading slowly… what if a group of people got together and said ‘Actually, we’ll take that, we’ll animate that space to benefit the community, AND we can have affordable housing there as well.’”
I praise the ingenuity and practical nature of this scheme, but question whether communal living suits everyone. What I really want to know is: can someone buy a plot in The Village, build their house, pay their yearly subscription to the management company, but not participate in any communal activity, as such.
“We need to find a balance between the individual and the community. Some people have bought a property here, they don’t engage with the educational charity… they still have a good life. Their kid plays with other kids…“
The vision of the founders of The Village was to illustrate that living sustainably within a community isn’t, well, weird. That it’s not the preserve of extreme activists but rather a potential solution to a global problem: dwindling traditional sources of energy and an increasing population (how convinced the locals are of this remains questionable – one long-term resident of Cloughjordan refers to the villagers darkly as ‘the ecos’). That’s all very well, as far as it goes, in terms of building energy-efficient homes with locally-sourced materials and growing your own food.
But Cloughjordan eco-village is also an experiment in a more radical sense: it’s a case study of a form of social interaction that isn’t underpinned by commercial exchange and instead depends on voluntary contribution and a shared sense of responsibility. It distinguishes itself from communities elsewhere in the country by virtue of the fact that the thirty odd families living in The Village are bound together by their mutual dependence on an off-grid water heating system (solar- and wood-chip burner- powered) and a Community Supported Agriculture scheme. Contribution of time and energy is voluntary, yes, but it’s also necessary.
The community farm is an interesting case study for this principle. Residents pay an annual fee in order to benefit from the fruits of the farm, as well as contributing time when they can, but there are no quotas and the door to the store-house where the produce is kept is left unlocked.
It’s a system that demands mutual trust, respect, and a significant degree of generosity to tolerate differences in commitment levels, as well as in the capacity to commit. As resident Alan noted, the development of the village “… has always been dependent on who had the energy and the will to step up and do stuff.”
The eco-village is certainly a useful model for how to apply principles of sustainability to a community, which was always its stated goal. How far it can be said to have been successful is open to debate; it seems to have been a slow-going process that has been in the gestation period for much longer than intended.
Gregg notes that the majority of residents have only moved into The Village in the previous two to three years, and the focus is now switching from the construction phase to the project’s original goal to operate as an educational hub focused on sustainability and resilience. Only time will tell whether the project will remain viable and develop to its full potential.
But apart from eco-building methods and community farms (initiatives which are now starting to be embraced by the mainstream anyway), The Village is a valuable study in the benefits of community and the worth of voluntary co-operation. The fruits of this ethos can be seen throughout Cloughjordan, from Davie’s visions for communal live-work spaces as a solution to the problem of affordable housing, to Alan’s description of The Village as a place where “There’s always someone out there you can reach out to – there’s always a helping hand.”