Bringing real community spirit back to a revitalized village – The story of Mullan village, Co. Monaghan

The decline of rural towns and villages in Ireland is a reality we are all familiar with. Due to a multitude of factors, such as factory closures, unemployment and a lack of investment and amenities, young people, over the past decades, have been leaving in their droves, taking their energy and creativity with them.

Life for those who remain can be difficult, with social isolation an all too common problem in rural Ireland. With few people left to bring new ideas and purpose, revitalising rural Ireland can seem like an uphill challenge. This was also the story of Mullan village.

The picturesque 19th-century mill village exhaled its last breath of life in the 90s. Located 8 miles north of Monaghan town, close to the Armagh border, at its peak, 180 people called Mullan home. A shoe factory was the main employer since 1924. But during the 90s, business started to decline and the population of the village shrank, until one man, Seamus, found himself on his own.

Seamus is still living in Mullan, but he has finally got some new neighbours again. Around 25 families have moved to Mullan village over the last 8 years after an investor bought the mill and started renovating the houses in the village.

He equipped them with solar panels to produce their own energy and modern heating systems and insulation to save as much energy as possible. The old mill became home to a new company, Mullan Lighting which was the starting point for the revitalization of the town.

Mullan community group shot, 2016

One of Seamus’ new neighbours is James Cleary. James moved to Mullan three years ago after seeing a job posting from Mullan Lighting when he was living in Malaga, Spain with his wife and child. They decided to pack up their lives and make a new start in the Irish village. Mullan was about as foreign to James, who grew up in Carlow as it was to his Spanish wife.

“The first thing you need to know about Mullan is that it does have hardly any mobile phone coverage. That makes it a very productive place. Nobody gets any phone calls.”

James is planning to make use of that gained productivity. He wants to turn Mullan back into the thriving community that it used to be.

“Right now there is no place in Mullan village where you just bump into people. Every village has at least a church, a pub and a shop where people meet. We don’t have any of those. When the winter comes, everyone is in their houses. You don’t get much of a sense of community.”

In line with his aspiration to make Mullan an environmentally friendly village, James developed the vision of a community garden becoming the new centre of town and community hub (though he admits, that if asked, more people would probably ask for a pub). Models like Incredible Edible come to mind when hearing him articulate his idea.

“Part of the final goal would be that we’ll provide ourselves with fresh home grown fruit and vegetables. That will help to further reduce our waste out. Even if we are only saving on a few more packaged vegetables every week that would be great. Every little helps.”

A local landowner has given up a patch of land right beside the old community hall for the use of the community. It’s the perfect space for James’ vision of the future centre of community life. This is the first community project that James has been involved in and so he is taking it one small step at a time.

“We are starting now with building a composter for the whole village. You can actually compost 20% of what you throw out. I thought it’s the perfect first communal project. We have the space to do it, it’s not much effort and you get results quickly. And another advantage: As we start to pay our bins by weight now in Ireland, it will also save everyone money.”

Next, he wants to move on to an Open Orchard and plant fruit trees. To get this project kicked off he applied for the “Energia Get Ireland Growing” fund that has been given out in partnership with GIY Ireland at the beginning of this year. Then he applied for the Community & Environments Grant Scheme via Monaghan County Council. His second application was successful and will now allow him to buy the first small trees.

“The orchard and community garden can impact the community in so many ways: Firstly it will give us a common goal as a community that most of the residents can take part in, young and old. Then there is an educational aspect. We can all learn basic skills from each other: Preparing the land, planting, tending and observing the natural growth. I also think it will be great for the children of the village to get involved and really see where food is coming from.”

James is the “blow-in” in Mullan as he says. Everyone else has strong connections to the place and some people come from the nearby villages of Emyvaleor Glaslough. Maybe it’s his desire to build connections to people and place that is leading him to drive this project; connecting people with their community but also with the land around it. His original motivation, however, was much more straightforward than that:

“I’d just like to go and grow something but we don’t have our own little patch. No one here actually has a big garden.”

Encouraging others to join his excitement for growing in the midst of the village is still a challenge for James. Everyone has their own commitments and passions to occupy their time. But slowly, James is getting a small team together to get the ball rolling.

“My next-door neighbour joined and there are about 5 more people ready and willing to help. I go around and have a chat with everyone. People are cautious of the time it might take but, we have 15 children in the village, all under 12. Children don’t love anything more than digging a hole and putting a plant in. It’s something we can do together with our kids and this way it’s no extra work at all.”

James also plans to ask Seamus if he would also like to get involved.

“Noone here knows as much about the area as him, so maybe he’ll be interested to join.”

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We are very excited to see how the community project in Mullan develops. Check out ideas and organisations that support communities in realizing visions like James’. Here are some of the ideas around growing and saving food that you can start with ChangeX:

Open Orchard – Connecting communities through fruit and fruit trees in public places

Grow It Yourself – Get together with people in your community and share the joy of growing your own food

Community Fridge – Share good food in your community that would otherwise go to waste.

Stop Food Waste – Helping householders to reduce food waste through workshops and more