Building society, one village at a time

 

Living in an eco village is about more than embracing a set of ideals during a recession, say residents of Cloughjordan – especially if it means finding a better and less expensive way to live

‘AT EXIT 23, turn left,” intones the satnav suddenly, as though jerked awake from 90 minutes of straight-road slumber by the spectacular view ahead. Driving against the morning rush, leaving the snaking jams of suited and booted Dublin commuters behind, from this crest in the road some 70 miles south of the capital, the car feels like it’s about to hurtle into a painting.

High and handsome, Devil’s Bit mountain rises up ahead, filling the windscreen until you disappear into it. Exit 23 feels like it might just take you to Middle Earth. Instead, it heads for Cloughjordan in north Tipperary, Ireland’s only eco village, hidden somewhere behind these hills. Its residents have taken a left turn off the main route in more ways than one.

“I think we both felt that if we stayed in Dublin, we could just see where our lives were going to go,” says Julie Lockett. She and her husband Joe Fitzmaurice were renting in Stoneybatter at the height of the boom. The dancer and the baker, who one day wanted a family, didn’t want to drag a hefty mortgage behind them all the way to retirement.

Fitzmaurice was baking for his family’s business, Blazing Salads, and wanted to build his own wood-fired oven. He heard through friends at the Dublin Food Co-op about plans for an eco-village in Tipperary, and the project struck a chord. “We signed up before even coming down here,” says Fitzmaurice, a dramatic puff of white rising into the air as he stabs open another bag of organic flour.

Now standing in the wood-fired bakery that adjoins their three-bed home, as the first batch of rye loaves of the day cools off, it’s clear that their move to rural Tipperary is panning out.

The couple paid a €15,000 deposit for the site in 2007, and moved into the home they helped to build last year. Fuelled by a wheelbarrow of wood a day from nearby Knocknacree wood, Cloughjordan Woodfired Bakery now supplies three Dublin shops and some local ones. “For the price we paid for all of this, we could have probably bought a two-bed terraced house in Cabra,” says Julie Lockett.

Drive through Cloughjordan and you’ll probably miss the eco bit. A neat village with an Anglo-Irish feel, along with the usual mix of slumbering pubs and shops, its Catholic, Protestant and Methodist communities are indicative of a community long tolerant of influx.

It’s the kind of place where a farmer has abandoned his tractor mid-street for a chat and no one is going to get mad at anyone for holding them up. Getting out of the car for the first time since Dublin, you can almost feel a decompression.

Located in fields adjacent to Cloughjordan’s main street, the eco-village was set up by a group of people who formed an educational charity, Sustainable Projects Ireland, in 1999. The premise was to create a supportive social community living in a low-impact way. An ad was placed in the Farmers Journal seeking fertile farm land adjacent to a village and with good transport links. “What raised Cloughjordan above any others was that a delegation came and tried to attract us to the town,” says Dave Flannery of Sustainable Projects Ireland, the sales manager at the eco village.

The Cloughjordan site was bought in 2006 for “approximately €1 million”, with funds from Sustainable Projects Ireland, deposits from future tenants, and backing from social investment fund Clann Credo. The 67-acre village site has a community farm, 17,000 mixed native trees (just planted) and housing. It has planning permission for 114 low-energy homes and 16 live/work units. The first home was built in 2009 and to date 34 houses have been built. Twenty more are under construction, with up to 10 more starting this month.

Oonagh Roantree moved to Cloughjordan five years ago. “I was tired of urban life,” says the Dubliner. “I felt it kind of deadened me. Just the constant repetitive humdrum. It wasn’t for me.”

With a son approaching his teens, she wanted out and had set her sights on a move west. A meeting with the eco-villagers reset her compass. “What won it for me was that it’s community-based, intentional living,” she says. “I wanted to contribute to something, I wanted it to be about something that was meaningful.”

She sold her house in Terenure, and bought another in Cloughjordan village while the eco-village was under development. When the market subsequently collapsed, selling again to build her eco home meant returning a loss. But sitting at the kitchen table of the timber frame and “eco-crete” home she has moved into just the day before, it feels more like a gain.

Her black cat is happily luxuriating in the energy-efficient warmth. A solar- and wood-powered community heating system means that even in the coldest months, householders are paying €30-35 a month. “By the time we hit 60 houses, the cost will come down again,” says Flannery.

So what do eco-villagers do for a crust? Roantree works in community services in Nenagh, and teaches on a Master’s course in psychotherapy at the University of Limerick at night. Dave Flannery says other residents include language translators, journalists and IT workers availing of the village’s broadband to work from home. Others are educators or people commuting to jobs in Dublin.

Like any other village, some have lost jobs recently, although the community’s ethos of living simply can lighten the load. Thanks to the community’s farm, says Roantree: “You pay €12-15 a week for all your milk [unpasteurised], all your vegetables and your meat two or three times a year that you can deep freeze.” Each household also has the option of a 100sq m allotment too.

Residents are asked to give 100 hours a year to the project, so there’s plenty to do. “It’s not so much ‘we have a say’ as no one else is going to do if we don’t do it ourselves,” says Roantree.

“As a place to live, this has a lot of common land and we have to put time and energy into looking after that land,” says Julie Lockett. “I think if you’re not going to live a mainstream way of life, it is more work. The more aspects of your life that you are taking responsibility for, normally the more you have to put in.”

A community meal on Fridays and regular meitheals for planting or house building do play to the “earnest” stereotype, admits Lockett. “We’re all trying to live out our ideals here and when it comes down to it, we are. I feel less conflicted about my ideals living here. I’ve just made soup and most of the ingredients are from two fields away.”

“It’s a lot of fun as well, though,” says Fitzmaurice. “Riding on the back of a tractor with the kids, planting potatoes, when do you get a chance to do that?”

Pa Finucane was another Dublin refugee in search of a better life. “I was working in the city centre and commuting, sitting in the car, listening to traffic-jam news. I was just peed off with the pointlessness of it.”

In the space of a year, Finucane had sold his Churchtown home, chucked in his job and bought a campervan. Finding Cloughjordan on his travels, he signed up and, in consultation with the community, built the 38-bed Django’s Hostel on site. It has hosted everything from an anthroposophists’ conference to a “curry in a hurry course with Bollywood dancing”, which is happening in March.

Finucane says that this development, like any other, is challenged by the recession. “We still have another 50 sites to sell and we need to do that to finish off the development,” he says. “If we sell another seven or eight sites, we get the bank off our back, which will be a big landmark.”

Initially the plan was to sell sites to pay off loans, but slow sales mean that this cash is instead being used to pay off interest. “We don’t have street lighting because we just can’t afford it at the moment,” says Finucane. “But for God’s sake, we’ve been listening to bloody economists telling us how desperate everything is and how our grandchildren will be penniless. I think the glasses are actually half full.”

“A few years ago, we thought it might have been a quicker process,” says Dave Flannery.

Prices in the eco village, like everywhere else, have come down and open days are attracting healthy interest. Pa Finucane is hopeful. “After the madness of the Celtic Tiger, we are beginning to realise what we lost in those few years. We do collectively realise we made a balls of it, but we are still close enough to perhaps try and grab it back.”


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