Monday, July 29, 2013

Lessons from Cloughjordan - Ireland's only Eco-Village

We have the weekend off from teaching and its time to have a break from our volunteering.  We’ve decided to spend the weekend in Cloughjordan, home to the only Eco-Village in Ireland!  Seoirse, (I think that’s Irish for George) John’s brother in law has offered to drive us there, so he and his wife Helen, pick us up around noon on Saturday.  It is a gorgeous drive.  The village is about an hour’s drive from Ballyneety and we enjoy the serenity and open space of the rolling green Irish countryside we drive through.  It is such a contrast to much of the Australian landscape, often quite brown and dry during the summer…

Seoirse shares with us stories of his own adventures overseas.  He has a part time job in an Irish bar in Thailand - how global is the world we live in?  He spends more than half the year overseas, living and working in Asia.  Our dream is to be able to do this ourselves one day - or perhaps we are already doing this?

We will be staying overnight at the eco-hostel in the village and Seoirse kindly drops us off outside this building.  It is a nice clean place, a little spartan but that would be expected given its context.  We are pleased to see the connection between the eco-village and the existing village of Cloughjordan.  This creates opportunities for economic growth in the existing town and interaction between the longtime residents and the ‘blow ins’! 

Residents from the eco-village have also opened up businesses in town.  There are so many rural villages around Europe as well as Australia that are dying due to the migration of young adults to the cities.  This is an example of a model that could be easily replicated to revitalize disappearing towns! 

We walk up to the village cafĂ© to join the 3pm tour.  There are a few people on the tour and we make friends with another couple (Richard and Katie) travellers from Western Australia who are here for a sailing regatta but who live in a eco-village of sorts.

So what exactly is an eco-village?  As described on the Cloughjordan site:

Ecovillages are urban or rural communities of people who strive to integrate a supportive social environment with a low impact way of life. To achieve this, they integrate various aspects of ecological design, permaculture, ecological building, green production, alternative energy, community building practices, and much more. 

This project was many years in the making and has 67 acres of land for residential and cultivation allotments, large-scale farming and woodland, a solar- and wood-powered community heating system, community buildings, and much more.  The first residents moved in around Dec 2009. We are excited to hear about the fab-lab, a private Enterprise Centre that has been setup to provide a workspace to facilitate eco entrepreneurship in the area.  There will be hi-tech equipment here including a 3D printer! 

A number of houses are under construction and we stop to see a cob-house that is being built by the owner with a bit of help from his mum.  The family is living in a yurt while theirhouse is being constructed, so they have made a real commitment to eco-living!  There is much variety in the styles, building materials and size of buildings, which is a nice contrast from the more traditional developments that would either only cater to families with younger kids or cater to singles and couples looking for apartment living in the city. 

Being resilient in the area of food scarcity isn’t something that most people give a thought too, as they go about their lives.  Here at Cloughjordan, they have also embarked on a journey toward food sustainability.  We pass by a number of poly-tunnels where a variety of vegetables are grown and open fields where more resilient crops are thriving.  The village operates a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme where a group of people contribute an amount based on their earning capacity, stage in life as well as the size of their family.  Farmers are engaged with
part of this contribution to cultivate the land and produce a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as meat and milk during the year.  The produce is left in a common shed, and you help yourself to what you need!  It seems like a fantastic way to get access to fresh produce that is grown on your doorstep. 

Residents in the club volunteer their time to work on the land and it is just one example of the community bonding experiences enjoyed by the residents of Cloughjordan.  Potluck Friday is are another experience where residents who wish to have a communal meal gather at a resident’s house and bring along a dish to share. 

Perhaps if people found the work that they love and matched it up with the needs of the village then work would not seem like such a chore.  During the tour we visit the wood fired
bakery and find a resident who has done just this.  Baking bread in a wood fired oven is a laborious process that takes all day.  From the tasks of preparing the dough, to firing the oven, stabilizing it at the right temperature and then baking the bread, it is an all-consuming line of work.  But we find in the baker a man who has truly found his passion and his destiny and he revels in it. His house adjoins the bakery and he has fully integrated his life with his passion. Residents in the village can order their weekly supply and the bread is delivered to your door. If only more people in life would go in search of their destiny…we would all be doing more of the work we love and less of the work that we feel is a chore… and everyone would lead happier lives!

We are really pleased to see that the project ensures this is not a village that is cut-off from the 21st century.  They have high speed broadband, which enables people who live here to work from home if need be. They are looking at opportunities to create more local jobs through existing home businesses and cooperating for services such as accounting and web design. They are also looking at other ways businesses can cooperate such as by sharing ingredients between, for example, the candle-maker, soap maker and producer of essential oils.

Brenda takes us around the eco-village and we fire off our questions at her.  The project took off during the boom period that the Irish refer to as the Celtic Tiger years and there was huge
interest in the project and down-payments on land parcels by prospective buyers at the time.  Unfortunately, with the downturn of the economy, about 50 plots purchased at the time remain undeveloped.

I hear from a number of people who reside here that perhaps this might be a blessing in disguise as the houses that were being built during the Celtic Tiger years were very large and not quite in keeping with the philosophy of the eco-village.  In hindsight residents wonder if it might have been better to develop this project in phases.  The initial investment made to install the entire infrastructure to service each lot cannot be paid off now as not all of the lots have sold.  The demands for high-density houses were also over estimated.  It appears that in Ireland just as in Australia, living in a freestanding house is what most people aspire to.

While the front end of the site was meant to be a thriving market square with high-density housing and retail units, these units are only now being developed.

One of the other challenges they face here is persuading the residents to donate the 100-hours of volunteer labour they promised to donate as part of their contract of living here.  However, as with most ‘volunteer’ schemes, it is only a small percentage of the population (in this case about 20%-30%) who are conscientious about this due to time constraints, family pressures and other reasons. 

We enjoy the tour.  It has been a time for us to get a more intimate feel to the place as well as
to chat to the Australian couple who are keenly committed to sustainable living.  I invite them to our hostel for a cup of tea but Katie is keen for a pint so we walk to the corner pub…

We are standing around ordering drinks when a couple of Irishman sitting at the bar engage us in conversation.  They are clearly looking for a bit of distraction and possibly curious about where we are from.  Cloughjordan is a small town so it is obvious to them we are from out of town.  We have a really enjoyable afternoon with Martin and Colm.  It always amazes me that you can start up a conversation with random strangers and make real connections.  
We embrace the twist of fate that has brought two more new people into our lives…

Martin as it turns out lives in the eco-village but Colm his brother is visiting from the South of
France where he now resides.  Colm has come home with his son for a vacation as well as to visit friends and family.  Over Guinness and cider we exchange travel tales and tall stories.  We have many common interests with both Martin and Colm.  They are into acting, writing and photography and so Steve shares his Irish Theatre experience and I have a ‘shoot out’ with Colm, as we both try to take portraits of each other.  Since taking part in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, we have discovered that Sinead Cussack, the actor Steve got to star opposite is married to Jeremy Irons!!  No one had thought to mention it to us because it is common knowledge in Ireland!  Steve’s bragging rights have now got just that little bigger and Martin has his own six degrees of separation stories to share!  Colm and Martin invite us for dinner but we’ve already committed to another engagement so at 7pm they walk us back. 

We are here at Cloughjordan partly because of Michael, an Irishman we met in Kenmare.  He has put us in touch with his friends Sandy and Duncan with whom we will dine tonight although we don’t know each other.

Dinner with Sandy and Duncan was also a really enjoyable affair.  Sandy has lived in the eco-village for quite some time but Duncan is just completing the build of his commercial-cum-residential apartment in the town square.  It is always good to get the inside scoop of a place, to hear the stories of people who know first hand the challenges and celebrations of life in an eco-village. 

Over dinner we also learn that Sandy is quite the traveller herself.  Originally from England she has lived in communal housing in places like Nimbin Australia, moved to Hong Kong with a former partner and has finally settled here in Cloughjordan after coming over to check the village on the recommendation of a friend.  Duncan is also from England and has also lived overseas in places like Zimbabwe.  He is a
university lecturer so communal living and the idea of not commuting to work are concepts he identifies with.  He is a recent migrant to Ireland and living in an eco-village seemed to gel well with his environmental beliefs and life ethos but also a really great way to connect in with a community of people when you are new in country.  We finally say goodbye around 11 in the night after promising to give Duncan a call the next day to continue the conversation - which we do Sunday afternoon. 

Sunday is a bright sunny day and we bump into Martin and Colm while going for a stroll to enjoy the sun.  We have tea with them and also meet their kids.  I love how we seem to make new friends wherever we travel.  It has added an extra dimension to this trip that has made it very special indeed.  We part ways and in passing I ask Colm if he can give us a ride to the bus station about 10k away.  There are no trains on Sunday and the van to the bus-stop doesn’t operate today either.  Colm is travelling north toward Dublin but he very kindly offers to drive us to Limerick City, completely out of his way by about an hour!  We are completely blown away by the kindness of the strangers we have met!   We know they will continue to be in our lives in some form or another. 

On the ride back Colm shares more stories about his life.  He has had an incredibly diverse life.  He spent a year as a monk, living in a monastery in Killarney.  He is triathlete and is also interested in photography, writing and theatre.  On the way back we share our plans for travel around the rest of Europe and he invites us to visit him in the South of France, since we are planning to be in Northern Italy. We hug and say au revoir…and hope we will meet again soon, when our travels take us to the continent…

Monday, July 22, 2013

Teaching English at Ballyneety Farm

We catch the early morning bus from Galway to Limerick City where John our host picks us up and drives us to the nearby Ballyneety Village.  We are here to spend the next two weeks teaching English
at his summer camp.  We pass through beautiful rural countryside, where cows lazily graze all day and the bleating of sheep can be heard if you stop to listen. I am thankful I will be teaching English and not helping with milking the cows.

We’ve arrived on a Sunday, the day before classes start.  It is a lazy day here and John cooks us an Irish breakfast for brunch.  During the week, we will be taking it in turns to cook lunch and dinner as well as clean up.  We meet the rest of the International staff – Bex (England), Nina (Switzerland), Mano (France) and Jessica (Italy) who arrives a few days later.  Steve and I will be the English teachers together with Seoirse, John’s brother in law.  Bex is co-ordinating the program and the rest of the staff will be responsible for leading the activities in the afternoon.  

In addition to the summer school staff, we meet Elias (Spain), who is helping John out with farm activities.  Elias is closer in age to us and is travelling through Europe over the summer to expose his twelve-year-old daughter to other cultures and ways of living. 

We are all here because of a program called workaway (  It is run through a website that allows for fair exchange between budget travellers, and families/individuals around the world, looking for help with a variety of activities.  The philosophy of this site is that you work approximately 5 hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community.  If it is done well, you get to a slice of life in a new country as opposed to running around ticking off all the tourist sites on your must see/to do list.  If it is done badly, you will be asked to work long hours with little given back by the host. 

I often hear people say they can’t afford to travel.  Yet many of the travellers I meet are young people on very limited budgets who think outside the square and use opportunities such as the workaway site to engage with people from other cultures.  It also enables people who don’t speak English as their first language to be immersed in an environment where this is the only language that is spoken.  It enables friendships to be formed between people who would otherwise never meet each other.  These friendships, thanks to Facebook, will now last a lifetime, enabling spontaneous rendezvous around the world, as these travellers keep moving.  

Unlike the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program, which looks to make placements only on farms where the work available would usually be farm work such as picking fruit, the workaway site provides people with many different skills to find a host they can match up with.  The workaway site includes placements for skills such as: garden work, shopping, painting, planting, help with the Internet, building, babysitting, shopping and shearing.  In our case, we have come here to teach English to Italian students at a summer camp that is hosted at Ballyneety Farm.  It is an opportunity to volunteer without paying any agency fees, or paying for board and accommodation. 

We settle in quickly to life at the farm and are made to feel very welcome by the volunteers as well as John and Catherine his wife.  John has 3 houses on the rather large property together with cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, dogs and a variety of other wildlife like the resident peacock!   He also has a great
vegie patch from which we pick salads for dinner.  John lives in the main house with his family, rents out a second house and houses his volunteers in the third house.  Steve and I have a private dorm and bathroom upstairs while most of the young volunteers are in a dorm room downstairs.

Steve has never taught English before so this is all completely outside his comfort zone.  Having taught English for a year in South Korea and more recently for a month in Cambodia, this is not entirely foreign to me.  But there are no formal lesson plans here and after we have graded the students into three streams, we realise that the standard of English and comprehension varies a lot between these students although they are mostly between the ages of 12-14 years. 

This will be an interesting experience.  John shares with us his philosophy for teaching.  Most of all, he has an emphasis on fun.  This is after all their summer vacation.  The students are here with Betta (the Italian teacher who owns the Language School they attend in Como) and two of her teachers Kyle (an American lady living in Italy) and Eleonora, a younger Italian who runs a sister school in a nearby town. 

Each day John will take a group of students on a mystery tour, exposing them to some of the historic sites around Ballyneety as well as some of the local culture that could include an afternoon of bowling or an evening of dog racing.   Afternoon activities range from farm activities, football and volleyball to indoor games such as table tennis and pool for the times when the vagaries of the climate demand they stay indoors.  There is horse-riding, biking and cooking as well, adding a diversity that may not usually be found in a traditional summer camp.  Learning Molly Malone on the tin-whistle was one activity that was quite popular.  There will be excursions during the two weekends and the first trip saw the kids spend the day in Galway.  It appears the highlight for them was the 3 hours they spent shopping!  

I enjoy teaching Group A, (the most advanced group) as they are motivated and keen and have a good
comprehension of English.  Group B and C are more of a challenge but I hope at the end of these two weeks, the kids would have improved their comprehension due to this immersion experience.  Each kid is hosted by a local family and also has an Irish buddy to help them with their diary entries and their English.  The buddies come along each afternoon and play sport together with the Italian kids, once again creating an environment where English must be spoken.

The kids perhaps have no idea how fortunate they are to have the opportunities they do.  We would never have dreamt of learning a second or a third language in a foreign country at 14! 

I am looking forward to what these two weeks will bring.   We have time to ourselves in the afternoon after we have finished teaching and before it is time to cook dinner, if we are on duty.  We enjoy this time, blogging, working on photos or chatting on Skype to family.  After dinner, we socialise, go for a walk or go for a bike ride to explore the surrounding countryside.  The heat wave has broken and the occasional storm is a welcome relief!  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Galway Arts Festival

We’ve decided to spend a week in Galway, relaxing and enjoying the Arts Festival.  We had not planned to attend the Arts Festival or for that matter to come to Galway, so we have got lucky once again on both counts. 

The Arts Festival is an annual event here in July and is one of the most influential arts enterprises in Ireland.  Galway is a beautiful town, nestled between Galway Bay and on the banks of the River Corrib.  It is a beautiful location and the town is now bustling with activity and visitors due to the festival.  I read that the festival will feature over 500 writers, artists, performers and musicians from America, Asia, Australia and Europe and of course Ireland. The Festival will highlight dance, physical theatre and spectacles from America and Europe illustrating the Festival’s continuing commitment to staging extraordinary, ambitious and innovative projects.

We have arrived at Eire Square by bus and one of the chaps in the bus ropes in a fellow traveller who is
going past our accommodation to show us the way.  We are constantly surprised both by the friendliness and hospitality of the Irish.  So many people have gone out of their way to help us out and this has made our stay here extra special.

We have checked into student accommodation once again, as we are staying here a week.  It is a 20-minute walk from the city centre and our apartment is comfortable, spacious and relaxing.  We are really happy to be here.  There is a big supermarket across the road so the first thing we do is stock our fridge with groceries and then cook a big bowl of spaghetti.  We are already confident that we’ll enjoy our time here.  It will give us a few days to get caught up with our writing and to relax with plenty of time to enjoy the festival and the surrounding sights.

The buskers at the festival were quite incredible.  They ranged from really incredible performers with sophisticated sound systems to others like the ‘Plink-Plonk’ man who stands around with a cardboard guitar next to a music stand with a sheet of music muttering the words to his song!  I loved the guy dressed up like an Indian sadhu who seemed to be magically suspended in air and I was happy to part with a few euros for the privilege of taking his photo.  The chap who made beautiful sand sculptures of a dog or pig, was also incredibly talented and a draw card for the kids as were the people who posed as statues dressed up in elaborate gear.  Most of all there were musicians everywhere.  The girl on the harp played beautiful music and the variety of bands and solo artists playing both rock and Irish music added a great vibe to the pedestrian area.  The group playing Irish music captivated us and we purchased their CD as a souvenir.

We learn that Oscar Wilde was actually Irish and I reminisce about the days when I had read his complete works.  I loved the story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Importance of Being Ernest was one of my favourite plays – it had me in stitches!  Ah – he was a
man with great sense of humour!   It was fun to meet and chat with some of the artists and buskers at the festival.  We found the man who ties himself up in knots selling balloons.  We had seen him in Edinburgh and he is doing the rounds in Europe.  He is off to Denmark soon…so who knows we might bump into him again.  It was fun to chat to Chris the painter.  He gave us a few tips
on where to visit and promised to put us in touch with a friend who runs alternative tours in Berlin.  We get an email from him later and once again we are amazed at the generosity of the Irish people. 

Both Steve and I were keen to experience a bit of theatre while we were here but unfortunately, this Festival is very popular and many of the shows we wanted to see were sold out.   We bought 
tickets for one show at the main festival and left feeling a little disappointed there weren't more shows available.  

It was quite by accident that we bumped into a group of people gathering signatures on a couch.  Curious, we stopped to chat.  It was then that we heard about the Fringe Festival here in Galway, which was not being promoted by the organisers of the main festival.  We learnt there was a show on that night – The Great Couch Rebellion and after signing the couch we promised to return for the show.   We really enjoyed this bit of theatre, set around the economic crisis that is gripping Ireland.  The show centres around Adam and Eve, a young couple gripped in the throes of a mountain of unpaid bills, a mortgage that hangs like a noose around their necks and unemployment.  The show centres around Adam, a rather complacent Irishman and his feisty and pregnant Greek wife who tries to provoke him from his apathy to get up and make a stand about the austerity measures and their plight.  It is piece of theatre set around the crisis that is facing Europe today and highlights the fact that so many people just carry on despite the obvious signs of collapse, convinced that things will work themselves out in the end.

The second show we saw was called Stella and Lou and was produced by the Northlight Theatre.  It is a very topical story, and centres on conversations in Lou’s bar.  Lou is a retired widower who rarely ventures too far away from his beloved bar.  He is afraid to love again since losing the woman he lived with and loved for so long.  Stella is a nurse who has never experienced real love and is petrified of dying alone.  She has plucked up enough courage to ask Lou on a date and shake him out of his apathy.  The play also includes a much younger character in Donnie who is struggling with the demands his fiancĂ© is making on him to turn their wedding into this imagined fairy tale.  He is shocked at how much it will all cost and the fact he may have to re-mortgage their house to pay for the horse and carriage, her dress and her numerous other new demands she dreams up each day!  We enjoyed the show immensely because it was so true to life and had so many poignant moments that so many in this mostly middle-aged audience could identify with.

The other highlight of our time in Galway was spending a day with our friend Helen.  You may have read Helen’s Story, which I wrote while we were in Scotland.  Helen lives close to Galway and made the trip to the city to join us at the festival.  We spent an enjoyable day together watching circus performers, comedians and musicians as well as catching up on our news since we parted ways at Findhorn.  Saturday was a really fun day at the festival as there were many special street performances. 

I love this aspect of travel.  The instant friendships we make with perfect strangers who then move in and out of your life as you pass through their city or they through yours.  Facebook helps us stay connected but these face-to-face encounters help make the friendship real.  It is our last day in Galway and we enjoy the sunshine and have a splurge at a Spanish restaurant before bidding this town goodbye.

"I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod:  My shadow does that much better."  Plutarch