An idea that began in Dublin's Central Hotel in 1999 – to create Ireland's first ecovillage – has borne fruit on a 67-acre farm adjoining the village of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary.
Back then, the aspiration of low-carbon living, where going about one's life means producing as little climate-changing carbon emissions as possible, was cutting edge. Now it is on the lips of everyone from the pope to corporate and state leaders meeting in Paris at the COP21 climate change summit.
As a founder member of the ecovillage, I was heavily involved up until 2009 when I left for a six-year stint in Belgium. Back then, only one house had been built. On returning this summer, things had changed dramatically.
There are 55 homes, an enterprise centre, a bakery, allotments and a hostel. The community farm is finally up and running; some 16 acres of broadleaved forestry is maturing nicely; a meandering biodiversity trail, colloquially known as the “perimeter walk”, is trod daily by ecovillagers and locals alike. There’s also a steady trail of students, both from school and university, who come to learn in the community.
Internationally, the ecovillage is part of the global ecovillage network and has been identified as one of Europe’s most important examples of an initiative that provides policy lessons for a low-energy society. Of 1,500 projects initially chosen by the EU-funded Milesecure researchers, Cloughjordan featured in the final 23.
"It's the multifaceted nature of our project that makes us so successful," says Peadar Kirby, academic, author and one of the first ecovillage residents. "The ecovillage is robust in renewable technology, food and community."
At the national level the community’s ecological footprint is the lowest measured in Ireland at 2 global hectares (gHa), just above one-planet living. (One gHa represents the average productivity of all biologically productive areas on Earth.) The average for 79 other settlements included in the study was 4.3gHa.
“This is the single biggest piece of evidence that we are really achieving quite a substantial amount,” says Kirby.
That the ecovillage has gained international acclaim is all the more remarkable given that it is still a work in progress, with 47 sites still for sale, and, like many other developments, recovering from the recession.
“We were launched in the Celtic tiger and were expected to be sold out but now it’s quite a different ball game,” says Tom Tracey who lives here with his family. “There are only 55 households where there were meant to be over 130.”
One effect is that the district heating system has fewer customers than it was designed for, resulting in higher than expected charges for residents. Also, it was designed to run on two renewable sources – woodchip and solar – but the solar panels have, so far, not worked.
The contractor overseeing the work subsequently went bust and we are now seeking ways of raising the finance to get them operational.
Nevertheless the “interconnectedness [of the district heating system] reinforces community which is at the heart of the project”, says Kirby. “Far too much of the discourse about climate change is about technology but it’s not going to make a difference on its own. It’s a resilient community that will make the difference.”
One system that appears to be working well is the sustainable drainage system. In effect it is a controlled floodplain, designed to keep water away from ecovillage houses but on site for as long as possible, thus slowing down its release into the local stream. It is heartening to know we are doing our small bit to reduce flooding, especially as we are in the Shannon catchment.
In September 2012, the ecovillage halved its site prices, with sites serviced for electricity, heat, sewage and water now on offer for between €45,000 and €70,000. The project received virtually no national public funding but did receive an EU grant towards the renewable energy heating system.
“We are at the cutting edge of the most crucial global challenge – that of achieving a low-carbon society by 2050 – and yet we are existing on a knife-edge and with virtually no funding,” says Kirby.
So what is life like in the ecovillage? Living in a bright, warm house (ours is B1 energy-rated) is pure luxury, especially when you know all your heating and hot water is coming from a renewable resource. It is satisfying too to harvest rainwater off our roof for use in all but two cold water taps.
When it comes to mobility I was part of a car club in Brussels, so sharing cars with a couple of my ecovillage neighbours comes easy. The strong sense of community within Cloughjordan as a whole, combined with various community email lists, is a bonus to getting places too.
“Help is always there,” says resident Junko Shimada, who is originally from Tokyo. “When you need a lift, you send an email and five minutes later it’s sorted.”
Living here it is possible to radically reduce one's food miles. You can grow your own, buy directly from the experimental vegetable gardens run by ecovillager Bruce Darrell or join the community farm. As members we help ourselves to as many vegetables as we want from the central collection point, where produce is delivered three times a week.
Making a living
We are also members of the local bread club, paying for our home-delivered bread from the Riot Rye bakery on a monthly basis. Combined with meat from the local butcher, milk delivered by a local supplier, dry goods ordered in bulk with some 50 others and a few supplies from Cloughjordan’s shops, non-local shopping trips are far and few between.
Making a living in rural Ireland is undoubtedly an issue. While some residents commute to nearby towns and some further, many work from home and from the WeCreate enterprise centre.
For Laois man Pat Malone, who farms the community land, the biggest daily challenge in the ecovillage is our diversity.
“But it’s also our strength. To live in a community you have to follow the agreed processes. I’m useless at it, but I’m learning,” he says with a chuckle.
As for the kids, they have a choice of two primary schools and numerous activities within walking distance. Sophia Whelan (11) who has been in the ecovillage since she was seven, says: “We are quite free to go where we want as there aren’t many cars.”
So is the ecovillage a success? "We don't have much of a sense of achievement but others who visit are always impressed," says John Jopling (80), the oldest ecovillager. "We are a community who are trying to do our best."