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 café 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…


  1. I look so bad in that photo. Thank you so much for telling this story. I am very moved.

  2. I enjoy reading your story. Cloughjordan is very potential place in business when it is developed.

  3. Great article,I really appreciate it..please visit my site also @eco home northern ireland..Thank you for sharing..:)