Wednesday 13 December 2017

Would a barge life float your houseboat?

An exterior of a canal barge
An exterior of a canal barge
The interior of the 'Grey Owl' at Sallins, recently sold for €125k
Ronnie Byrne, barge owner

Gabrielle Monaghan

When Trish O'Grady bought a barge in 2006, she settled in for a peaceful life chugging along the Grand Canal. But she wasn't alone for long.

Friends who heard she'd be living on the 18th-century waterway suggested she seek advice from fellow canal boat-dweller Mick McCullagh, who had built his own barge after reading books on the subject. He offered to fit out O'Grady's barge and the pair have been an item since.

"I remember meeting him and you'd see him reading from a plumbing book or a carpentry book," she said. "He learned how to work and maintain engines. We just hooked up straight away."

The couple went on to have two children, now aged four and five. Living aboard a barge was "very do-able when they were young," but as they grew "they wanted to be on their little bikes or out in a garden", O'Grady said.

The family has since moved to dry land, though has retained a taste of their old lifestyle by setting up Dublin city centre's first barge-hire firm. The 50ft by 10ft, six-berth barge, called Scéal Eile, is moored at Grand Canal Dock. After a one-hour instruction, customers can navigate their way through seven locks en route to Portobello. Such is the demand, the pair plan to hire out a second barge in April.

While the majority of Scéal Eile's customers are tourists, the couple has fielded three enquiries in the last month alone from people eager to determine whether they are cut out for living on a barge indefinitely.

"There's a huge interest now in living aboard barges in the city," O'Grady said. "They have a life-long dream to live on a boat and they like the lifestyle and affordability. Because it's not the 'done thing' in Ireland, barge living is still quite unique here, unlike in England or Holland, where it's really taken off."

The couple's starry-eyed first encounter on the canal reflects the romance landlubbers associate with a floating home. Instead of expensive, congested city life, live-aboards – as houseboat dwellers are often dubbed – can relish the freedom of steering a barge under stone bridges through Ireland's picturesque network of rivers and canals.

There are between 60 and 100 live-aboards in Ireland, a relatively small community given there are some 10,000 boats, estimates from the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and Waterways Ireland show.

Living on the water in Ireland, once considered the preserve of hippies, has now become more practical, thanks to the addition of new facilities on the Shannon and Erne and investment in the Grand and Royal canals.

The main line of the Royal Canal, an 89-mile stretch of water from Dublin to the Shannon, reopened in late 2010 after a 50-year closure and a 36-year campaign to restore the waterway.

Ronnie Byrne, 70, lives on its sister canal, the Grand Canal, which was used by Guinness to carry barrels of porter to the midlands. His wife Mary spends two nights a week at their home in Sandymount so she can work as a hairdresser. He prefers to spend much of his time on their former Guinness barge, moored at Leinster Mills near Naas, since he retired five years ago.

The couple bought the 60-ft barge in 2000, converted it into a houseboat, and first moved into it in 2004. Byrne looked "all over the country" for the right boat before spotting a 1936 Guinness barge in Ringsend Basin. He tracked down the owners and persuaded them to sell it.

"I'm living the dream now," he said. "This lifestyle is not for everyone. You need to have a love of a boat. You can just buy a boat and stay in one spot in a marina, where there's power and a water supply and you can just walk straight onto it from a jetty. But after St. Patrick's weekend, I'll move and go up to the Erne during the summer.

"It probably wouldn't be the best place to be sick, either. I'm going for my third session of physiotherapy in Dublin today because I injured my shoulder on the boat, lifting a heavy battery the wrong way. So I certainly won't be selling my house to rely solely on the boat."

Demand for these floating living spaces have risen so much that any converted barge, narrowboat or live-aboard cruiser that comes on the market is quickly snapped up. Second-hand Dutch barges are especially popular among those with plans to live on the water, because they are so spacious they can accommodate all the comforts of a home.

There are a handful of second-hand vessels for sale on Apolloduck.ie, a specialist listings website for boat sales. For €160,000, would-be owners can have a refurbished Dutch barge built in 1924. The interior comes with armchair seating, a dinner table for six people, a TV and music system, and even a wine rack.

One couple in Dublin, who didn't want to be identified, said they have been scouring boating websites and viewing barges because "it would be cheaper than renting in Dublin". Their search, however, has so far proven fruitless.

"The quantity of barges around that are suitable for live-aboards are limited," he said. "We have taken trips on barges we rented for weekends. Myself and my partner are interested in renting one for 12 months to test the water. If it suited us, we would make it a permanent fixture."

In the past, Waterways Ireland, the body responsible for maintaining the country's navigable waterways, discouraged the practice of boaters taking up residence on rivers and canals amid concern they would choke up the waterways. It only allows boats to moor at any one place for five days. Indeed, it successfully prosecuted two boat-owners on Lough Erne last year for breaching a bye-law against staying at a public mooring for more than 48 hours, saying it restricted access for tourists.

But there are now signs that Waterways Ireland is beginning to soften its stance towards live-aboards, by issuing houseboat permits and moorings.

It has allocated nine dedicated berths at Shannon Harbour in Co Offaly to houseboats, in return for an annual fee of €1,250. The body has also applied for change-of-use planning permission from Dublin City Council to convert 20 temporary moorings at Grand Canal Dock into a houseboat marina, though hasn't yet set out the cost to boat owners, Brian D'Arcy, director of operations, said.

"The next stage would be to see what the going rate will be, given that the boats will be in Dublin 4, not in Offaly, and that people will have access to the buses and the DART," he said. "We don't want this to be looked upon as cheap housing – it's for canal enthusiasts who wish to live on board for most of the year and have attractive craft.

"Someone wanted to develop student accommodation on the canal that runs along the back of Griffith College. But we want people to enjoy their boats in peace and quiet, and not have to listen to parties at 4 in the morning."

Irish Independent

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