'Some city slickers thought they'll live in a field and won't have bills to pay' - rural village mired in red tape
As rural villages continue to decline our reporter asks whether the eco-village model that brought 55 new households to Cloughjordan could offer some answers
Thomas MacDonagh, the poet and Easter Rising revolutionary, once described his small home town of Cloughjordan in County Tipperary as the "calm of middle country". And, on a drizzly, recent Monday morning, the former garrison town is just as tranquil.
Indeed, the tranquillity and lack of employment was too much to bear for the many who left throughout 60 years of depopulation. By 2002, the town's only remaining bank had shut down, prompting businesses to relocate 16km away to Nenagh. With a population of just 431, Cloughjordan was dying on its feet.
That is until a group of mostly urban professionals chose it as the location of Ireland's first eco sustainable community, because it had a rail service (now threatened) to keep their carbon footprint in check. They settled on a 67-acre plot of land just off the main street and were selling plots in 2007.
In an era when rural Ireland is suffering from the closure of banks, post offices, shops, pubs and garda stations, might that kind of reinvigoration from urban dwellers seeking refuge from sky-high city housing costs be just the ticket for towns and villages battling depopulation just as Cloughjordan was then?
Some Cloughjordan locals were initially sceptical of the kind of people the initiative would attract, remembers May Casey, a retired teacher who has been living there for 40 years.
The eco-village "quite divided the community, with some enthusiastically welcoming it and others, like in any rural place, being suspicious of new people moving in en masse," she says.
But the influx of people to the town did provide a vital injection. It boosted the population by 8.3pc between 2011 and 2016, and helped keep schools and businesses open while providing some new ones. "The eco-village brought in new life and diversity. They brought a bookshop which we wouldn't otherwise have been able to sustain, a cooperative café, and music sessions to the pubs," May says. "We have two schools in a very healthy state, a circus town that's marvellous for young people, and more kids playing with the hurling club."
Sally Starbuck, an ecological architect who owns a three-storey live-work unit in Cloughjordan, and helped draw up the eco-village's masterplan, believes elements of the initiative could be applied to other rural parts of the country if a local authority or institution was willing to provide the land, and if there weren't the kind of unwieldy planning delays and conditions that dogged their project.
"It's not a cheap option - you do have your transport costs and we're not living in yurts - but the actual cost would be much less than in Dublin, which has just gone bananas," she says. "... if people can work from home, that makes a big difference to living in a place like this."
Joe Fitzmaurice, a baker, and his wife Julie Lockett, a former professional dancer, swapped Dublin for the Cloughjordan Eco-village in 2011. Julie explains: "We were renting in Dublin and then looking to buy a house and start a family. Neither of us had ever lived in the countryside before and, because I'm English, I wanted to live somewhere where there would be quite a lot of activity going on and with people from other nationalities around. We have two boys, aged 9 and 11. Since the eco-village has been up and running, both schools have had two extensions built."
The couple set up Riot Rye Bakehouse and Bread School beside their home. There, Joe runs 40 bread-making courses a year and bakes 400 loaves of organic bread a week.
The eco-village has 50 acres of land for allotments, woodland and a community farm. Its members volunteer on the farm and source their produce from there for a fee of around €70 a month. The project is also home to an eco-enterprise centre, an amphitheatre for events, an eco-hostel, and a district heating system powered by wood-chip.
But it seems it takes time to get so many like minded people to move to the same location and for the eco village, it has been a long road. The project was first conceived back in 1999 by a core group of environmentalists, but planning permission wasn't secured until 2005. The first homes weren't built until 2009, just as would-be residents were gripped by the property crash and credit crunch. By 2007, some members who had paid a deposit on the sites got so frustrated with the lack of progress that they left.
In the meantime the continued expansion of the project has become mired in red tape.
Tamara MacGinty, a retiree from Seattle living in a two-bed cedar-clad house she and her Irish husband built in Cloughjordan, moved there to be part of a sustainable, close-knit community. She says: "We have 132 sites and 55 houses are built. There are people waiting to buy and to build, but we have some issues around planning. One of the reasons for that is that the sewage system in Cloughjordan isn't adequate for handling new builds, so we're waiting for Irish Water to do whatever they need to do to make that allowable."
Peter Manley, a former investment banker turned musician feels "disillusioned" - he spent €450,000 building his home there and now believes it's worth only €220,000. "Not a single bit of development work has been done on the estate since we moved here five years ago," says Peter, who lives there with his wife and children.
"Nature is taking over again, with brambles, willows, docks, thistles. The cut and dry economics don't seem to work here. Some city slickers came down with the ideology that they are living in a field and won't have bills to pay. If I were going to do this model elsewhere in Ireland, I'd do it somewhere where there are jobs and a need for housing."