Waterways Ireland flexes muscles but tries to not lose sight of those on board, writes Caroline O’Doherty
Paddy Harkin used to patrol the stormy seas as a Naval Service commander but his policing skills are just as valuable on the seemingly serene waterways of the country’s canals.
As Waterways Ireland’s inspector of navigation, he not only has to keep the freshwater highway moving freely, he must chart a course through human sensitivities too.
That unlicenced barge is someone’s forever home, that battered riverboat is someone’s temporary escape, that lovingly restored narrowboat is someone’s pride and joy, that half-sunk she ll of a cruiser is someone’s DIY dream.
Ireland’s canals see all sorts and many enjoy a contented existence, but others jostle for makeshift moorings and a quick blast of a scarce public water or sewage connection, while some are abandoned, leaking, polluting and sinking.
Near the bridge in Sallins, Co Kildare, Paddy points to a small, ransacked cruiser of the kind with just enough space and comfort for a weekend away for two.
“There was a guy who worked in Intel living in it with his partner and their toddler,” he says of the now untraceable former occupants.
For months, Paddy and his team have been planning a canal clear-out, tracking down owners of boats without permits, and stickering unclaimed vessels with a minimum one-month warning that they will be removed.
In recent weeks, they’ve moved about 40 mystery boats to central points and crane-lifted them to a depot where they’ll be auctioned off in the new year if the owners don’t come forward.
All the detective work in the world can’t beat the sight of a crane jib being lowered to the water for unearthing an elusive owner.
“We had a man stage a sit-in yesterday. He arrived at the last minute and said we’d have to take him with the boat,” Paddy says.
He did eventually disembark and, for the price of a permit, starting at just €126 a year thanks to fees set in 1986, plus a contribution towards the cost of the crane hire, he can have his boat back, but Paddy says many won’t bother.
As if on cue, a man comes striding along the canal path with annoyance in every step. His husk of a boat is half-way out of the water, 50 gallons of escaped motor fuel sloshing around in its frail hull.
He dishes out several pieces of his mind, insisting he needed only one more day to get everything in order, but as he storms away again, literally abandoning ship, Paddy explains he’d had a month of days to respond.
It’s understandable why people didn’t always take the warnings seriously. Waterways Ireland rarely flexed its muscle in the past.
When the current operation began, just over half the 600 boats visited had permits and many were stopping at locations far longer than their limits allowed, a blind eye turned to transgressions.
But two developments have prompted a change in approach. One is a surge of interest in the canals as an integral part of the growing number of greenway and blueway initiatives springing up around the country.
The other is the housing crisis and the steady increase in people making their home on the water.
About 100 unofficial live-aboards have been recorded, mainly at Sallins, Lowtown, Graigenamanagh, Hazelhatch, Portobello and Grand Canal Dock with others scattered throughout the canal system.
“You think some are empty but then you see a light on and smoke coming from them in the evenings because someone’s come home from work,” says Paddy.
It is a lifestyle choice for some, but Paddy has come across numerous separated fathers who can’t afford a second rent.
“We have the invisible homeless on the canals," he says.
John McDonagh, acting chief executive of Waterways Ireland, is trying to put order on the situation.
He is working on a ten-year plan and revision of the by-laws, regulations and fees which will go for public consultation in the new year.
Accommodating full-time living on the canals is a priority but it will be a challenge.
“We have 20 official residential berths at Grand Canal Dock and a waiting list of 200,” he says.
Throughout the canal system there are just 38 official houseboat berths with jetties, power points, water and sewage connections and broadband.
Providing more would require planning permission and, given that official berths attract extra, unofficial users, stricter regulation would have to be assured.
“We’re asking how do we support living communities on the canals and we’re looking at other countries to see how they do it,” John McDonagh says.
“The issues driving the demand are economic and social - they're bigger than Waterways Ireland - but we need to increase the capacity of the canals to handle it.”
The agency has announced changes before that were not followed through, but the boat-lifts signal that, this time, it means business.
That worries live-aboard residents who have long overstayed the welcome their temporary permits allow.
Carmen Cano from Guatemala moved into her boyfriend’s houseboat home in Sallins in January, simultaneously having to adapt to a new country and a new way of living, followed swiftly by working from home when home is a boat.
“It’s a challenge,” she says. “You have to learn new ways of doing things. But it’s really beautiful to be close to nature. I was thinking, how would it be if I was stuck in an apartment block in the city in lockdown? This is much better.”
Her boyfriend is on a waiting list for a permanent spot in Sallins but the long-term residents have made their lives on the canals now and there is no sign of a berth becoming free.
They moor instead close to a public water tap intended for transient users. Others in a similar situation regularly pull up alongside and hop across their deck to fill containers.
A few hundred metres away, a sewage connection and rubbish compactor are available for use with a smart card containing pre-paid units sold in local shops.
Electricity points are available here and there too although most serious houseboaters use solar panels.
Carmen’s neighbours are a young woman and her partner who lived in Dublin up to a year ago when soaring rents convinced them to try canal living.
“Even here, you’d pay €1,200-€1,300 a month for a small apartment. It’s not possible to live,” she says.
She doesn’t want to be named because she’s nervous about their unofficial status.
“If we’re moved on, I don’t know where we’d go. I’m still going into Dublin for work and I can get the train from here so we can’t go miles away to the middle of nowhere,” she says.
John McDonagh accepts the clean-up has caused anxiety and says all canal dwellers will be invited to discuss their situation. "Nobody is being evicted. We are are not in the business of doing that," he says.
"Things will not change overnight. There is going to have to be a transition, something phased over three years or so."
He's looking at models such as Scotland which has 30 years experience of regulating houseboats and about 150 permanent berths for a canal system half the length of Ireland's.
He's also looking, enviously, at funding abroad. He says European canals have three times as much funding per km as Ireland.
The all-island agency's €30m annual budget is 85pc funded by the Republic and about a third short of what is needed.
He says the investment is more than paid for in returns from tourism, leisure and public service.
"We're not asking for something for free. We calculate we give back value of €500m. In ten years we could create value of €1 billion. But to get to €1bn, we need to invest and to decide what direction we want the canals to go in."
Failte Ireland, ten local authorities and ‘super-user’ groups such as the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland are all feeding into the masterplan that will go to public consultation.
It will cover both north and south of the border as ultimately, the idea is to have a fully navigable canal system all the way from Limerick to Portstewart in Northern Ireland, although a lot of work is still to be done on the disused sections of the Ulster Canal.
“For years in different jobs I used to drive along, over and around canals to get to the water which, for me, meant the beach. We have a fantastic resource under our noses and we need to make more of it.”