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Stalwart Hopes, Stunted Growth.

 Cloughjordan Ecovillage Two Decades On.

By Caroline Hurley.

Cloughjordan So Far

In September 1999, at the Central Hotel Dublin, Gavin Harte and Gregg Allen launched Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd. (SPI) trading as The Village, whose aim was to create Ireland’s first eco-village, with a stress on sustainability, community, and promoting mainstreaming environmentally-friendly ideas. 

Rising property prices pushed site options farther from the capital than originally envisaged but after advertising in the Farmers Journal, specifying requirements for clay-rich soil to build, a south-facing orientation, and adjacency to an existing village (a serendipitous Council stipulation contrary to SPI’s green-field site preference), community leaders from Cloughjordan on the Tipperary-Offaly border made contact to urge purchase of land meeting these criteria, which were being sold by the Baker family. 

Cloughjordan’s population then, about 400, was one-tenth of its pre-Famine size. As the transaction progressed, talks eventually allayed locals’ concerns about an influx of strangers with fringe beliefs and practices. 

Cloughjordan’s population then, about 400, was one-tenth of its pre-Famine size. As the transaction progressed, talks eventually allayed locals’ concerns about an influx of strangers with fringe beliefs and practices. 

North Tipperary County Council agreed to rezone the agricultural fields for sustainable development, and the application for outline planning permission for private houses, roads and community buildings was made after land purchase was finalised in 2003. Planning permissions sought and granted can be viewed on using reference numbers 04511649 and 08510334. An archaeological survey conducted on the sixty-seven acres by Dennehy and Gowan revealed signs of occupation from the Bronze Age. Regrettably never signposted, findings included Fulachta Fiadh, ring forts and barrows, ditches, a moat, a fever hospital and starch house. 

In 2007, a Village Finance Group published a comprehensive document entitled ‘Information About Site Prices’, explaining how 2004 site costs were calculated, why they had gone up so much by 2007, and steps being taken – such as bulk buying – to curb higher price impacts. The low-lying aspect of the field, formerly containing an old well, hugely upped infrastructure quotes. 

The plan to complete building on all 130 sites by 2010 was frustrated by exorbitant boomtime bills putting almost half of the subscribers to flight.  Delays were compounded by the recession and logistical complications.

The plan to complete building on all 130 sites by 2010 was frustrated by exorbitant boomtime bills putting almost half of the subscribers to flight.  Delays were compounded by the recession and logistical complications. Borrowings were in the millions, contrary to the original no-debt policy, resulting in unintended long-standing liabilities, and diluting autonomy. 

Phase 2 underway, 2011

The County Council absorbed more funds after rejecting developer proposals for a social-housing element provided for by Government housing-legislation guidance at the time. Those who paid deposits for initially oversubscribed plans were later asked to sign “statements of integrity” undertaking to build by a certain date, but many could not meet changing conditions as escalating site costs were re-calculated, and as properties they meant to sell to pay balances lost value. Marketing to find replacements for drop-outs had to be stepped up again as subscribers still-in forged ahead, though SPI’s weakening finances led to staff being let go. Researcher Campos (2013) noted, “the project hasn’t been able to get around the predatory price system of the formal economy”, and Nelson (2018) added, Cloughjordan “is the most market-oriented … and the least affordable” of several ecovillages analysed, placing it outside the price bracket of many desirable ecovillage candidates. Steps to address this barrier are now afoot. Already, the presence of ‘communities within the community’ has been observed. 

By 2011, diverse nature-inspired buildings were going up on certain sites sold; mainly of passive timber frames with sundry insulations and finishes including Durisol blocks (blocks of chipped waste-wood bonded with eco-cement), sheep’s wool, and cellulose (shredded newspaper). Constructions with hemp-lime (traditional Irish finish of lime, strengthened by adding hemp) and cob (clay, sand and straw) also feature, as does a Canadian stick-frame house with double stud walls (with no cold bridging), and kit houses. Anyone with business ideas could opt for live-work units. 

Natural slates, recycled plastic roof-tiles and ‘green roofs’ are on display. This distinctive colourful collection of low-carbon emission builds secured some of Ireland’s best Building Energy Ratings (BER). 28 bought sites not yet developed are levied charges, variably met, leaving 47 sites to sell as of 2021.

Instead of using fossil fuels, the District Heating System (DHS) burns biomass: waste wood from a Galway sawmill.Although this cutting-edge renewable solution of the noughties has since drawn scrutiny due to forestry pressures and particulates affecting air quality, the system meets village-wide heating and hot-water requirements, emits no excess greenhouse gases, and has been estimated to save about 113.5 tonnes of carbon annually compared to conventional house heating. 2.5 kg of piping distributes hot water to all sites. 

Manufacturer failures jinxed the ground solar array slated to support the DHS. About a fifth of residents have roof photovoltaic panels. In 2014, a survey carried out by Tipperary Energy Agency confirmed an ecological footprint of 2 global hectares, the lowest recorded for an Irish settlement.

Rainwater harvesting is a common feature. The Sustainable Drainage System (SuDS) is designed to direct water runoff from houses, roads and hard surfaces to a stream leading offsite. Stormwater is managed as close to source as possible to mimic natural drainage and encourage efficient biological infiltration, attenuation and passive treatment. Water flows through conventional roof drainage pipes and road surface filter drains (stone filled trenches) to swales or basins to be stored during periods of heavy rainfall, before stream discharge. 

As of 2021, fifty-five unique energy-efficient houses and a hostel are occupied by 135 residents, many of whom work from home. Most remain involved in the myriad businesses of ecovillage life and, even if bruised by experience, report satisfaction

As of 2021, fifty-five unique energy-efficient houses and a hostel are occupied by 135 residents, many of whom work from home. Most remain involved in the myriad businesses of ecovillage life and, even if bruised by experience, report satisfaction. 

This well-educated population of teachers, nurses, actors, writers, retirees, engineers, growers and more, if idealistic and not sufficiently toughened at the outset for the minefield of specialist land development, has not gone unscathed either by disputes, deserters and deaths. Members may resort to group fora, or to the handful of resident counsellors. 

The train service to Dublin and Limerick is greatly appreciated, as are local link buses. Electric cars and bicycles are popular. The Green Enterprise centre onsite hosts Cultivate, We Create, and Ireland’s first community-based Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory with 3-D printers). Vine provides high-standard broadband, and Riot Rye Bakery delivers freshly-baked bread and runs courses. Cloughjordan Catering Co-op cooks with farm produce to serve in their Middle Country Café. 

Pesticide-free seasonal vegetables grown under green biodynamic principles are supplied by the affiliated twelve-acre Cloughjordan Community Farm, Ireland’s first and largest Community Supported Agriculture scheme, operated by paid farmers and EU-funded workers. Paying members may participate in farm business. Rethink Ireland has just awarded funds for an allied Open Food Hub to host and market more like producers, in recognition of food quality and security, ethical land care, and local collaborations. Abundant fruit and herb plants ensure an edible landscape. A Celtic labyrinth, sensory and wildlife garden, and harmony garden enhance aesthetics and amenities, as do allotments, an apple walk, a Dark Skies group, a permaculture teaching centre, and ample space reserved for biodiversity. 

Land use is based on the principles of environmental diversity and productive landscape. Culturally too, the overall village model emulates the edge effect, a primary permaculture pattern encompassing synergism, creativity, and emergent change. The flourishing and proliferation of new ideas and practices so nurtured ultimately depend on moving them from the periphery into institutions. Composting, recycling and other organic methods are routine. There are several composting toilets on site. Thousands of native trees (oak, ash, Scots pine, birch, rowan, cherry, hazel and alder) were planted, and terrain was sectioned for multiple purposes. Land corridors and hedges accommodate wildlife. 

A company limited by guarantee, SPI, also gained educational charitable status by 2008.  Grants help keep ventures afloat. Significant income from teaching and tourist activities to supplement annual individual payments fell during the pandemic, even as inquiries about moving in to live noticeably rose. A fresh focus on upgrading infrastructure, inaccurately assessed by professional parties as satisfactory when laid down, should result in planning permission being re-instated soon

Anniversary e-Event: Twenty Years a-Growing 

On 28 November 2020, close to 100 participants from far and wide attended a public online event entitled Twenty Years a-Growing, to mark the twentieth anniversary of Cloughjordan Ecovillage. It was organised by Village Education Research and Training (VERT) group, one of SPI’s Primary Activity Groups (PAG), dedicated to education and research. Another central PAG is Land Use Group (LUG). Various subgroups operate less regularly, as do temporary task groups until the given task is done. 

Minister Eamon Ryan delivered a pre-recorded message celebrating the example of pioneering bravery showing what worked and what did not. The focus on local and remote working had proved fit for purpose during ordeals like the pandemic.

SPI Chairman Mick Canney opened by outlining the historic and present context. Green Party Minister Eamon Ryan delivered a pre-recorded message celebrating the example of pioneering bravery showing what worked and what did not. The focus on local and remote working had proved fit for purpose during ordeals like the pandemic. As economics caught up, he wished twenty years of blooming next for the ecovillage. 

Four residents then recounted their experiences. Since arriving aged twelve, Aaron was shaped by the ethos and felt a strong sense of belonging. He valued food security, personal support, the range of activities, and the Enterprise Centre for fostering creative livelihoods. He cited mutual collaboration and consensus approaches as models for society. Poor accessibility was a challenge though, especially for the next generation. 

Ecovillage life could be intense, and sometimes seemed like an extended meeting, though it still had much in common with other small villages. The project was a lifetime’s work, often eroding personal to-do lists. Debt remained a threat, and leadership, male-dominated. The ecovillage’s commitment to resolving conflict was especially worthwhile. 

Iva said ecovillage life could be intense, and sometimes seemed like an extended meeting, though it still had much in common with other small villages. The project was a lifetime’s work, often eroding personal to-do lists. Debt remained a threat, and leadership, male-dominated. The ecovillage’s commitment to resolving conflict was especially worthwhile. 

Ollie agreed that ecovillage existence felt amplified. As a journalist and former member of Dublin Food Co-op, he cherished freedom from traffic, a safe healthy child-rearing setting with so much happening, and the train service and bike scheme for commuting. The farm was inclusive, maintaining gender balance and attracting international volunteers. He believed the future was rural. 

Morag also valued train travel, and was active in rail retention campaigns. When an urban co-housing initiative in Dublin did not work out, she turned to SPI in 2010, seeking sustainable surroundings and economics. She and horticulturist partner Bruce got by on several income streams, including YouTube subscriptions, Vine internet provision, and secretariat for Feasta. Mistakes have made the community more humble and kinder.

Next, seven invited outsiders shared reflections.

Senior Lecturer at Maynooth University Dr Mary Murphy offered the metaphor of a river constantly adapting and changing course as required, for Cloughjordan Ecovillage’s journey. She commended the drive and effort entailed, and refusal to compromise founding values of consensus, co-creation, and sustainability, despite sewerage, water and other issues. The mission, demographic and housing mix, and biodiversity attracted ongoing interest from academics worldwide (‘pracademics’). More Local Authority support would help. She urged better gender balance, and mentioned a possible match of NSEC’s pilot participation income with environmental networks. She said children noticed a culture of co-produced blended emergent knowledge, and agreed the future was local, rural and public.

Cork-based low-carbon financier Tim Crowley agreed on the ecovillage’s relevance especially in 2020, as environmental concerns moved mainstream and became a societal priority. He advised altering the development model of selling individual sites to, instead, boldly pre-building out and accelerating estate completion through partnering, as finance was increasingly available from housing bodies like O’ Cualann. Slow decision-making processes seriously threatened pro-active site resolution, perhaps relievable by more women in authority or communication model upgrades following academic analysis. Despite hiccups, Cloughjordan Ecovillage presented as an integrated hybrid alternative, even as global belief in the markets as panacea had become patently untenable.

Dr Anne Dolan of Mary Immaculate College, UL, missed bringing students to the ecovillage where they could directly witness lived values to feed into critical thinking which impacted professional choices. The place’s essence and community’s experiences contain important messages for education and climate change policies, and should be documented, perhaps in a handbook, to help guide others.

Engineer Paul Kenny of Tipperary Energy Agency viewed Cloughjordan Ecovillage as fundamentally an inspiring set of ideas. He reiterated the recommendation to reform decision-making, so that boards could act quickly and autonomously to re-establish economic and infrastructural sustainability, backed by faith in their integrity. Resilience shown by the community and local rejuvenation set an example to Tipperary people that remoteness was not an obstacle to global involvement. Energy deficiencies, and inadequate public sector oversight of waste-water treatment, imparted lessons in terms of accountability and planning.

However, local authorities’ default stance of fear of failure is a hurdle to environmental innovation and particularly unfair in retrospective consideration of an initiative as ambitious as an eco-village. Imagination should be better rewarded, considering over 80 per cent of Ireland’s energy for heat and transport comes from fossil fuel; and that the EPA has found 113 locations around the country in need of priority waste-water action by Irish Water and group schemes to protect public health and the environment. Defects hampering ecovillage development are far from exclusive but do pose extra challenges for the future.

Professor Sullivan-Catlin of SUNY Potsdam fondly recalled her 2011 visit, and commented on the cogency of Richard Heinberg’s four strategies: of last one standing, power down, denial, and building life-boats; along with Joanna Macy’s ‘Great Turning’ work to reinvent civilisation and put out green shoots. 

It was time, she felt, to mainstream collective action as practised by Cloughjordan Ecovillage, and overcome structural obstacles to sustainability – she cited a law preventing installation of predominantly composting toilets. Tired of living in over-resourced but isolated fish-bowls, many people were searching for healthier lifestyles.

Bypassed over twenty years ago by the Celtic Tiger, with its youth migrating and its identity as a thriving market town lost, Cloughjordan was rejuvenated by the ecovillage’s arrival, according to County Councillor Ger Darcy.  

Bypassed over twenty years ago by the Celtic Tiger, with its youth migrating and its identity as a thriving market town lost, Cloughjordan was rejuvenated by the ecovillage’s arrival, according to County Councillor Ger Darcy.  He first encountered SPI in 2013 at the UN International Awards for Liveable Communities in Xiamen, China where they won the Gold Award for best ‘Socio-Economic Project’. Good broadband especially made working from home viable. He hoped the formerly fragmented approach of some ecovillage boards would urgently evolve into a determined holistic force to instate remedial overhauls required and avail of pertinent financial aid. 

Karen Ciesielski of the Irish Environmental Network praised Cloughjordan Ecovillage as a centre of practical excellence, singling out the empowering emphasis on conflict resolution, because nurturing wellbeing was particularly critical for long-term undertakings. She wished insider accounts of intention, challenges and achievements would reach wider audiences. What has been transformative should be transplanted. 

Twenty Years a-Blooming?

About 15,000 ecovillages exist across six continents. Besides Cloughjordan, Ireland is home to the smaller related Hollies settlement near Enniskeane, Cork while plans for a new ecovillage, Enriched Earth, near Boyle, Roscommon are progressing. 

At least as important is the influence such undertakings have on the development of organic passive house builds in urban areas, such as Goldsmith Street estate in Norwich, which uses clay bricks and tiles. 

The burgeoning demand from money market investors for environmental, social and governance (ESG) shares, evidence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethical funds formed in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, speaks volumes about the impact of climate change on shareholders. Carbon emission data are becoming critical to businesses. 

As the neo-liberal approach to land development took hold in Ireland, and speculative investment in quick builds promised private enrichment, Cloughjordan Ecovillage came onto the scene arguing for something more socially responsible. Instead of proposing expedient carbon-intensive housing solutions, the ecovillage founders had their sights set on a bigger picture foregrounding quality, community, transparency and a genuine environmental consciousness of place that was not just about lip service and ticking boxes but could be lived, in line with Permaculture’s three basic and inclusive ethical maxims: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. As the economy see-sawed, the need to repeatedly justify and update plans took its toll. 

Without a joined-up systems response, other ecologically-sustainable initiatives could run into similar obstacles. Rigid planning preserves the status quo of developments consuming high amounts of energy, where residents live apart, and faceless entities profit. Projects friendly to the green transition now underway worldwide embrace regional materials and customs, and unique flair. Elements such as collective land tenure arrangements, alternative buildings and infrastructure, and work practices in tune with nature require more flexibility from society’s gatekeepers. The growing expertise and openness of local authorities and government bodies to adequately allay climate change through ‘Drawdown’ is encouraging.

In 2017, opening an amphitheatre built from ecovillage building waste, President Michael D. Higgins observed that “one of the things that strikes one, and particularly at my stage of life, is that very often you can look back at whole reams of words that really are quite distracting unless they are turned into reality. But here in this ecovillage so much is being turned into practical achievements, and in difficult circumstances…We are not called onto this planet to use all of our efforts to fit into something that we are told we might never understand”. 

A book-length eco-charter listing types of materials approved for sustainable earth-friendly construction and lifestyles is undergoing revision, to reflect updated knowledge. Many reference documents, committees and meetings, organise ecovillage business. Meitheals are regularly arranged to tidy common areas which are not yet transferred under the MUD Act from the development company SPI to Cloughjordan Ecovillage Service Company (CESC), the residents’ management company. Efforts have recently intensified to regularise this situation. Both bodies charge annual fees. SPI members are expected to perform at least 100 hours of voluntary work per year. As not all SPI members live in the ecovillage, routine estate maintenance is an additional separate obligation on residents, whose management fee is relatively low. Prospective property buyers are alerted well in advance to membership terms and charges relating to both companies. While estate completion is awaited, controversy is periodically triggered with the deferral of apportioning common areas, which would clarify domains of responsibility. Unpaid charges on undeveloped sites, and loan interest, encumbrances borne by residents on top of their own bills, breed further quarrels. Regardless of skeletal administrative resources, the need to resolve legacy issues is pressing. 

Addressing issues North Tipperary County Council has identified as hindering the renewal of planning permission is the immediate priority, after which it is hoped to attract a fresh tranche of compatible buyers, and incorporate cohousing buildings.

The fact that Cloughjordan was voted one of the ten best places to live in Ireland by readers of The Irish Times in 2012 shows low-carbon living can be fulfilling. Heralding a cleaner future, the ecovillage has been included in Europe’s 23 most successful ‘anticipatory experiences’. A 2016 European Commission study by London’s Young Foundation named the ecovillage as one of Europe’s most interesting social innovation projects, and it was nominated as a finalist in the housing category of 2020 Transformative Cities Awards, which promote solutions to the planet’s systemic economic, social, political and ecological crises. 

Cloughjordan Ecovillage survives, if still fragile in respects; but then, in Alexis Shotwell’s words, “people doing movement work usually get lots of things wrong, which might not be such a problem – if the purpose of the work isn’t to be right [but]…to contingently make it be that something that deserved a future has one,” and, she adds in Against Purity(2016), to do that, “we need practices of open normativities to pursue visions and practices hospitable for worlds to come”. David Holmgren co-founded the permaculture movement to re-design agriculture from scratch using ecological principles, and he believes, “intentional communities have been a way of experimenting with some of those aspects of permaculture that weren’t so easy to do at the personal or household level”, with the additional goal of redesigning society. As debt and land costs soar, collective sharing of skills and resources, and stacking of functions for both regeneration and productivity, should create synergies of integration for mutual support and resilience. Adoption of renewable energy and practices slows exhaustion of finite capital in kind, more in line with commons than enclosure paradigms. Earning a living from land licensed in such settings has been challenging, often coming up against a conservation and land-restoration mindset which, while worthy, is also possibly a consensus cop-out. Several speakers at Cloughjordan Ecovillage’s anniversary event alluded to similar constipated processes. 

Nobody said evolving new land-owning residential arrangements with related educational business would be easy but focus is needed on the cultural framework, not just alternative tool applications. Discovering too late the poor condition of Cloughjordan’s surface water in river catchments impacting drainage and sewerage, and a lower altitude than originally believed, sent bills and tempers soaring. The concept of sustainability itself would begin to look suspicious if applied to settlements that compromised life cycles supporting them. That is why environmental impact assessments and designs for regeneration are paramount, and as was pointed out at the online event, why authorities need to get with the programme and accommodate emerging participatory forms of ecological justice for a future to be possible. 

A submission to Wicklow’s 2020 County Development Plan notes that for successful transition settlements, “home design, cluster layout and other functional decisions, should be decided based on best practice principles, rather than personal choice, democratic means or consensus. The Cloughjordan project, for example, ran into these difficulties, along with externalities of housing market collapse”. In fact, individualised structures characterise ecovillage landscapes. A research study in 2013 among others concluded that “in spite of the impressive nature of the built infrastructure at this [Cloughjordan Ecovillage site], the community continues to struggle with consensus-based decision-making as a form of self-organization and governance’. Stalemates associated with consensus are often deemed worth it for the equality of voice and imaginative problem-solving fostered. 

With minimal municipal services to rely on, group handling of encroaching wilderness and other upkeep issues can be tricky. Ground-work is loosely coordinated, relying on obliging types not easily distracted. Whether there is a time and place to risk less self-governance for more outside aid is a dilemma increasingly being aired. Integrate rather than segregate, goes another permaculture principle. It may be good enough to demonstrate selective triumphs for grafting elsewhere as opposed to modelling Utopia. Unlike many unfinished estates, construction persisted well into the recession, till 2013, but virtually all development work then stalled. Critics tend to expect perfection of such idealistic endeavours, and rather than make allowances for pluck inherent in attempts to practice and promote low-impact living despite community and other strains, they often belabour perceived shortcomings and ecological compromises imposed.

The threat of closure still looms over prime village attractions like the post-office and train service (and did, till 2001, over a town bank, and till 2019, over a butcher shop and antique shop, each of which did close) though eco-villagers are involved in the thriving book-shop and co-op café. This lifestyle option is not yet particularly cheap, largely due to add-ons like the DHS standing charge, transport for commuters, and local premiums, initially contrived as bargains. Another financial constraint is securing mortgages and insurance for unusual builds. Concerns for the future bubble up sometimes as outstanding issues are being resolved. A cohousing element in revised plans should noticeably reduce the price deterrent.

Modern sovereignty is increasingly defined as less about national control than about the responsibility to preserve life-sustaining standards for citizens through law and rights, as embodied by hitherto outlying communities such as ecovillages. The United Nations is developing statistical tools to provide accurate data on ecosystems, biodiversity and other natural capital that will reveal, rather than conceal, how nature resources economies. This System of Environmental Economic Accounts – Ecosystem Accounting is due to be adopted by the United Nations Statistical Commission in 2021. Smart infrastructure ideally aids decarbonisation, lifestyle improvement and cost-efficient data use. 

Recent reports by Climate Action Network Europe, Social Justice Ireland and Bertelsmann rank Ireland near the bottom when it comes to fighting climate change, but a newer book from Palgrave MacMillan, entitled ‘Ireland and the Climate Crisis’, cites evidence of gaining momentum. Illuminating the climate crisis, factors shaping Ireland’s response, and future prospects, the book includes coverage of Ireland’s smart Citizen’s Assembly and Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change to consider IPCC warnings. This volume of scholarly essays edited by Dave Robbins, Diarmuid Torney and Pat Brereton credits Cloughjordan Ecovillage with largely leading the way. Its ability to stay on top of best standards is another matter but, after twenty years of striving against the grain, perhaps the stronger sentiment is, the more the merrier.

 Green Party presence in government is reflected in the Programme for Government, giving rise to strategies such as the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, in step with the EU’s stricter regulations for plastic recycling. A Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill under consideration is congruent with drives for Green Deals across Europe and America. As County Councils too shift emphasis onto green objectives, chiming with the likes of Transition Town initiatives, the imperative of sustainability that pushed Cloughjordan Ecovillage into a tumultuous world twenty years ago is actually unassailable.