Paradise lost? What happened to Ireland's model eco-village
It was conceived as a model for environmental living in the 21st century â" a self-governing eco-village which would be communal, carbon-neutral and self-sufficient.
The plans for Cloughjordan, a settlement in the heart of Ireland, provided for a working farm, solar power, an âedible landscapeâ and district heating. There would be 130 plots for homes on a 67-acre site and some communal ownership.
Then, 10 years ago this month came the financial crisis. âIn 2008, there were deposits on every site,â says Davie Philip, one of the founders. âThen, with the crash, we lost all our staff and 50% of our deposits.â
Ten years later, it is remarkable that Cloughjordan is still soldiering on. Harsh lessons have been lear ned and this is certainly no utopia. But locals are adamant that they are the pioneers of a low-carbon economy and that the world can learn from their example.
In all, 55 houses have been built on the 130 sites, with another 20 sites sold. The sustainable heating, drainage and sewage systems have had problems, leading to some ecological compromises, but the basic infrastructure works.
And though it may not be fully self-sufficient, the village has a working farm, an array of well-tended polytunnels and a bakery providing the community with good food year round.
Philip, a Scotsman who moved to Ireland 25 years ago and now lives on Cloughjordanâs main street, takes me on a tour.
âThings are always a bit messy here because we have to do everything ourselves,â he says. âThere are no municipal services, so we have to cut the grass, keep it clean, plant bushes and apple trees. This isnât the market square that we envisaged, but itâs still used in various ways.â
Some of the houses are self-built â" Philip points out a hobbitish âhand-sculptedâ dwelling with a roof made of recycled plastic âslatesâ â" while others are contract-built.
They are kept warm by the district heating system up the hill, whose boilers are powered by wood chips from an Irish sawmill. Behind it is a big field of solar panels, which Philip admits has not worked properly since it was installed in 2008.
âThe company that installed it went bust in the recession, so there was no recourse,â he says. As a result, the community has had to rely on mains electricity to drive the pumps.
Across the road, in his RED (Research Education Development) garden, Bruce Darrell stresses the importance of growing oneâs own food in an uncertain world.
âIâm at the doomer end of the spectrum, Iâm not a utopian,â he says, showing me the plots where he has been experimenting with various approaches to growing, including the âno-digâ method. âThis is about resilience. Itâs about how to get by in a resource-constrained future.â
â When the diesel runs out, weâll be ready,â says farmer Pat Malone cheerfully. Today he has connected his plough to a tractor but âas often as we canâ his team employs horses.
âWeâre combining old practices with new equipment,â he says. âHorses provide dung and they disturb the soil much less than tractors. The challenge working with horses is to create time. For that, you need more people. We want to bring people back on to the land.â
Similar sentiments are expressed by Joe Fitzmaurice and Julie Lockett at Riot Rye bakery. âWeâre going back to the old system of bakeries, where the amount of bread you produced was limited by how far a [delivery] horse could travel,â says Fitzmaurice. Their wood-fired oven restricts output to 350 loaves a week and they supplement their income by running baking classes.
The eco-village allows people to put ideas of low-impact living into practice and to promote them to the wider world. Whatâs harder, it becomes clear, is keeping the community itself happy.
âWhen I arrived, I thought the work was to bring a lot of approaches â" green building, permaculture, renewable energy â" together in a community,â says Philip. âNow I see the real work, in every community, is how do we cooperate when we have different values and world views?â
At Cloughjordan, rather than relying on (and being failed by) distant administrative bodies, the residents do all the work themselves â" from governance to lawn-mowing. This requires a huge amount of collective effort and no small amount of diplomacy.
âYou need to be a good communicator,â says Lockett. âYouâre engaging on a lot more levels. Weâre tied to gether financially, which leads to different conversations with neighbours â" people donât usually talk about money.â
Decision-making happens on a consensus basis; a number of groups and subgroups have been set up to cover areas such as education, land use and development.
It can be complicated and often frustrating, but, as resident academic Peadar Kirby says: âWhatâs the alternative? Give all the power to the board? This governance structure allows a huge amount of creativity to flourish.â
Many who consider themselves part of the project, including Philip, live in the old village of Cloughjordan n earby.
âSome people in the pub will give out about us after a few drinks, but thatâs to be expected,â Philip says. He points out that the population of Cloughjordan has increased, while many other Irish country villages are losing residents, so schools are better attended and staffed as a result.
The biggest challenge, says Philip, is getting more young people involved. âWe were in our 30s when we started, but weâre not that young anymore,â he says ruefully. âWe need to make it easier for young people to come here, buy plots and buildâ and contribute to the community. He cites co-housing schemes as one possible way forward here.
When I ask another of the founder-residents, the journalist Iva Pocock, if the success of Cloughjordan depends on whether it is replicated elsewhere, she shakes her head.
âThe idea that weâre going to save the world by people setting up eco-villages is naive.â A better measure of success, she says, is if other communities take on elements of what has been implemented here: the car-sharing scheme, for example, or what Pocock refers to as Cloughjordanâs edible landscape â" the fruit bushes, trees and herbs around the village, which anyone can make use of.
Kirby is more bullish. âIf the question is: what political system could we design to get to a low-carbon economy? I think weâre modelling that, for all our faults and failures.â
That evening, the sun is out and the market square is aglow. Children are playing, ne ighbours are chatting, people are out walking their dogs. The grass is unkempt and a few nearby buildings need a lick of paint, but somehow this seems less significant than it did when I arrived.
Cloughjordan has a long way to go, itâs true, but perhaps we should appreciate just how far it has come.
- This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the worldâs most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at email@example.com
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