Utopias have a bad history. Describing a housing estate in a small town in Co Tipperary as Utopian might seem like a bad joke, except that the same development was awarded a gold medal at the UN-backed International Awards for Liveable Communities (LivCom) in December.
Cloughjordan Ecovillage is being developed by Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd (SPIL), founded in Dublin in 1999 with the aim of creating a model community as a template for future development.
"Utopianism at its best is about imagining a future that may look very different from the present, not in an airy-fairy way but in a way that robustly begins to plan for such a future," says Peadar Kirby, one of the first people to move into the estate in 2009. Cloughjordan is that future. The project was launched in 2000 and has reached the point where it looks and feels like a living community.
Fifty-three homes have been built on a 67-acre site just off the main street. Thirty more sites have been sold, with 50 left to sell. There is a community woodland, a 12-acre farm, a district energy facility, a solar park, research gardens and allotments, a 32-bed eco-hostel and an eco-enterprise unit. This has taken 15 years and cost more than €7m, only a fraction of which has come from the State. This estate was created by a community, some of whom built their own homes. I spent 24 hours in Cloughjordan, shown around by Davie Philip, a forthright spokesman for the project and a passionate advocate for the 'oneness' of community.
Cloughjordan (population 850) is a settler town, Norman first and Cromwellian second. It was a vibrant market town in the 1800s, boosted by the arrival of the railway in 1864. By 2000 it was in decline, its importance as a rural transport hub eliminated by changing demographics. It wears its history like a threadbare greatcoat, its wide streets and uniform terraces exaggerating the sense of a town that has outlived its purpose.
The Ecovillage bought a derelict pub and demolished it, punching a hole in the streetscape to give access to a site it bought in 2005. It's not the best preparation for the shocking contrast between the old and the new. The Ecovillage has ripped up the old order, opting for a cluster model reminiscent of a clachan. The shock is as immediate as it is visual. Sharp contrasts in house-type, scale and material are accentuated by the openness of the site. There are no walls or gates. Paths and play areas take precedence over cars. It doesn't look like a housing estate; in fact, it doesn't look like Ireland at all. The effect is deliberate.
"We wanted to make an impact, and 15 houses made of sticks in a field was not going to influence anyone," Philip says.
Architecture isn't the only thing that separates Cloughjordan old and new. The Ecovillage represents a very different way of creating a community
"Cloughjordan is about people coming to a location with the intention of creating a community," says Bruce Darrell, who has been involved with the project for eight years. He spent a year-and-a-half building a house with his neighbour and moved in three years ago with his wife Morag and daughter Leontien.
"There is no Utopianism here, there are no absolutes," he says. "This project was set up 15 years ago and it maintains a huge amount of the ethos of the original vision ... but that matters less to some people, who may just see it as a nice place to live."
Gregg Allen spent 10 years managing the development and agrees that the project has become less Utopian and more like an estate. But this is not your average suburban estate tacked on to a rural town.
It is a self-organising community and everything is done differently. There are around 130 members of the community, 25 of whom are children. Life is regulated by a system of monthly meetings and work groups. Pat Malone, a man of intense humanity, is responsible for growing food for all of them.
"Families pay upfront for fresh produce which is placed in a central depot for people to take what they need. There is no distribution or retail system to distort the cost of high-quality, organic produce," he says. There is a problem, however. The project is about 30 families short of the critical mass needed to sustain this type of food production. The farm does not generate an adequate wage, and Pat and his family depend on income assistance.
"Research shows it takes a population of about 2,000 to maintain a fully viable and varied local economy," adds Joe Fitzmaurice, the community baker. He produces 1,000 loaves a week; 160 or so go to members and the bakery is viable because it has a wider market.
The project has been affected by the crash of 2007. There are people who want to live here but cannot sell their houses or get mortgages. Twenty-five people have sites but cannot build and 15 more have paid deposits on sites. The purchase and servicing of the site required a lot of capital, which was raised through the sale of sites to members.
Conflict management is a key part of the monthly meetings.
"Tensions exist in every community," says Peadar, "and you wouldn't have a living community if you didn't have tensions. It's how you manage them as a community that matters."
"Other ecovillages have said that the main points of contention are pets, parenting and parking," Julie Lockett adds, laughing, "but they don't really apply here."
The flashpoints usually involve expectations; people have different ideas of what they want this place to be, and these have to be resolved through negotiation."
The same sort of pragmatism can be seen in the approach to education. It is a secular community and religion is a personal matter. Access to secular education is a priority, but it will have to wait, according to Julie. "We have set up an ecovillage, we've organised the build of our own houses, people are getting their businesses up and running – you can't radicalise every area of your life simultaneously, there's not enough hours in the day."
There are bigger problems. There is a skewed demographic because of the dependence on site sales and the combined cost of building a home, anything between €180,000 and €300,000. Many members simply can't afford to live there. Social and affordable housing is regarded as a priority, and frustration with local and national government is apparent.
"SPIL has always been treated by Tipperary County Council as a standard developer," says Gregg. The LivCom Award may change that and help to get the population to a sustainable level. It has established that this project is not about alternative lifestyles. This is about technology assisted community systems that are being rolled out in major urban centres across the globe, and projects like this need a proactive and imaginative approach by local authorities and statutory agencies in partnership with communities.
None of it matters without jobs, says Pa Finucane, who owns Django's Hostel. "You can talk about sustainability until you're blue in the face, but if you don't have a livelihood it's not sustainable," he says.
Tourism linked to education is the mainstay of the hostel. Educating people in the benefits of living in a sustainable community is an important source of income.
The potential of web-based eco-enterprise is personified by Una Johnston, an event manager who works Stateside mainly. "I can work from anywhere as long as I've got a laptop, broadband and access to a VPN. The fact that there is fibre-optic cable underground means that I have got really good quality IT systems. I don't commute. I work from here," she says.
Self-starting eco-enterprises got a boost with the opening this week of an enterprise unit (funded by Enterprise Ireland, North Tipperary County Council and Enterprise Board) in which Anthony Kelly and Ben Whelan have created the first "Fab Lab" or digital fabrication laboratory in Ireland.
"This is the last leg of the ecovillage story; people have places to live, we have the farm and people now have a place to work," says Anthony.
Resilience, optimism and determination characterise this community. They will finish this model village, this "beacon" of community living. Utopia hangs in the balance, however. Will the new Cloughjordan go the way of the old? Or does this experiment in the heart of rural Ireland offer new ways of maintaining old communities? Only time will tell – and time is running out, fast.
MEET THE CLOUGHJORDAN RESIDENTS
Peadar Kirby, Academic and Education Provider
"We live as a community, we interact very regularly, we share certain ideas even if many of us would interpret them quite differently but, when crisis hits particular people or families, the community rallies around and gives real support. It's at times like that that you realise what community means." Julie Lockett, Dancer and baker's partner
Joe Fitzmaurice, Community Baker
"Cloughjordan is a dynamic rural community, a place of possibility and optimism."
Gregg Allen, Eco-activist
"It's a fairly radical political act to live here, to make the decision to move to a community like this and to engage on this community level, to take on responsibility for your own life and livelihood."
Bruce Darrell, Gardener
"What we are trying to accomplish, from day one, is to bring eco-sustainable development into the mainstream."
Una Johnston, Event Manager
"Food is a primary need of a community. Ireland has a very low level of own-grown food. I started the gardens to try and recover the lost common knowledge of how families can feed themselves."
"I moved here three years ago and rented up on the Main Street. Now that I have made the move into the community, I have a home for the first time in my life. I have a base in a way I never had a base before. It's great."