Mooring permits have become a source of contention on the canals over the summer. We talk to some of the water dwellers who wish to anchor.
“I didn’t have a clue when I first bought my boat. You just go along with it. Slowly I’m learning, you know?”
It’s Saturday morning in Portobello Harbour, but based on the flurry of activity inside Gary Long’s Black Barge, somebody strolling the Grand Canal might assume it is a mid-week workday. The floors of his deck have been opened, revealing a blue diesel engine underneath. He hurriedly paces about, taking phone calls and chatting with people on the bank, while installing several new solar panels on his roof.
Below deck, in his kitchen is Luis Gomezcala, another barger-owner, who hooks the panels up to a set of batteries. At Luis’ feet is his Siberian Husky. He emits the occasional soft howl for attention, while a jet black kitten – Corona Catalina – wraps herself around the trunk of a potted tree, blissfully indifferent to the world.
On account of these upgrades, the barge’s interior is in the mildest disarray. Leftovers from a speedy breakfast are on the hand-carved dining table. An assortment of tools scatter the kitchen countertops. Gary apologises for the Gossamer-thin mess, even if it scarcely detracts from the handsome decor of this place. The walls are pine. The furniture comprises antique lockers and ad hoc shelves. Potted plants occupy every corner and by his bed is a 78rpm gramophone.
Gary acquired the barge back in July 2019. “I had it made in Liverpool and brought it over on a truck,” he says, offering the briefest of biographies. “Put it in the Canal. That was when I realised it was a huge problem trying to get a permit.”
“So it was made from scratch?”
“Yep, yep, yep. I think it took four months to build the shell and about six months for the inside. We’re going to put a cafe on the roof. Originally it was because they wouldn’t give us a permit. So I thought a commercial permit was the right way to go. But then they wouldn’t give us a commercial permit either.”
The barge is moored beneath a willow tree. On the roof, he has laid a stretch of astro-grass with some deck chairs and a table. When the sun shines, even the graffiti tags on the side glisten. A cafe here would be idyllic, and the fact that these plans have been stalled frustrates Gary to the point that he replies to questions with the blinkers on. Sure, his home could coax the least jaded Dubliner off the land. But he has no time to espouse the virtues of barge life. All he can think about is getting a permit to moor in the harbour.
In late June, he and three other liveaboard barge-owners on the Grand Canal were threatened with eviction by Waterways Ireland, the governing authority of rivers and canals nationwide. They were in breach of current by-laws, which prohibit boats from mooring at a single spot on the navigation for more than five days. Gary had consistently adhered to this law, moving his barge 500 metres each time the clock expired. However, when the pandemic struck the canal locks were closed and he was caught in a zone intended only for temporary moorings.
Once the locks reopened on June 29th, the four were informed that they would have to move within ten days. Otherwise, their barges would be lifted, impounded and auctioned off. In response, Gary took a stand, drawing up a petition which requested the barges be issued mooring permits. There are in Ireland only 28 residential mooring permits, Luis explains, 20 in Grand Canal Docks, and 8 in Shannon Harbour. “But around 500 people live on boats,” he estimates. “28 permits are not enough.”
The other proposal was for Waterways Ireland to reflect on how this public space was used, with his case being that liveaboards add to the scenery and strengthen local security. “You’re adding life to the canal,” Gary says. “A lot of the canals are very derelict around Dolphin’s Barn, and if there were boats, there would be a lot less antisocial behaviour. There’s accountability there.”
From the get-go the petition amassed signatures; one thousand on the first day and a further five thousand in the two months that followed. And fortunately, the evictions were halted on July 7th when the Minister for Culture and Heritage Malcolm Noonan intervened, calling on Waterways to find “a long-term and sustainable solution to regularise the use of the canals.”
“The situation wouldn’t be where it is now if he hadn’t stepped in,” says Matt, another liveaboard owner, whose boat is moored in the Grand Canal Docklands. “Malcolm calls us the Custodians of the Canal”, Matt’s mother tells me one evening as we walk around the Basin’s berths which have as a backdrop the glassy gleam of “Silicon Docks” and the old Boland’s Flour Mill.
“We organise a clean up here every month,” she says. “It’s like Gary said: having people on the water, it’s positive, very positive.”
Matt and his mother’s liveaboard is an open-hooden seafaring boat, which moors on the shaded side of the dock. “The boat was built in 1945,” Matt says. “It served in the last year of the war for the UK as a supply ship, so it ran in and out of the harbour to the larger destroyer ships.”
Life on the waters was always something that attracted Matt. He took to boating at the age of nine. “I started sailing on dinghies, racing larger boats through my teens and then had a few small sailboats on Lough Derg.” Then, as a student in Dublin during the mid 2000s, he began exploring the idea of buying a liveaboard. “It became a lot more interesting because of the cost of living and exorbitant rents,” he recalls. “There weren’t many people doing it then. It wasn’t as normal as it is now, even if it’s not normal compared to other European cities.”
Later, in 2012, a newspaper article caught his attention. “Waterways Ireland were being really positive about people starting to live in the Grand Canal Basin.” Deciding with his mother to couple together their savings, they bought a boat on Lough Neagh. “The boat was lived on by a family for fourteen years. It was fully functioning. We sailed it up the River Bann, through the canals, out to sea, by the coast and to Dublin.”
For the first three years, Matt lived full-time on the boat. His mother would stay there occasionally, using it as an alternative to renting in the capital as she commuted weekly from the south-west. “Then it just changed for me and became more for her,” he says explaining that when he and his partner had a child, they decided the boat no longer fit their needs. Its staircases were too steep and the situation surrounding permits was far too precarious.
Presently, his mother lives on the boat, while he, as its owner, visits to do regular maintenance; a task, which his mother describes as being “constant, constant, constant.” “Like a vintage car, it takes constant care to maintain it to a standard,” Matt says. “I found that very easy full time, but now it’s not so easy, and it’s part of the reason that I want to find a newer boat which doesn’t require as much maintenance.”
Although he and his family are now on land, his sights are still set on returning to the water. “I don’t think I’m meant to be on land. I feel more comfortable in a boat. The motion of being on a boat is something you get used to, and I slept really well like that. But also, the sense of nature, being right in the middle of Dublin, seeing otters, swans and fish literally at your window as you make a cup of coffee… It’s a relaxing sensation.”
“More people are moving in and seeing this as a great way to live,” he says when asked about how the future looks for people eyeing up the canals as a potential place of residence. “There needs to be a long term plan and short term solution so that you don’t come home from work to find your boat being impounded, because that anxiety this has caused people is untold.”
When contacted, a Waterways Ireland representative said they are working “to ensure maximum access to moorings – in line with with licensing provisions – for canal vessel owners”, with an aim to hold a public consultation on developing inland waterways nationwide in late 2020. “It is an inevitability at this stage,” Matt says. “I feel much more optimistic than I did a month ago.”
Beyond permits, the main reason offered in support of regularising the canals is that liveaboards revivify areas of Dublin that fell into disuse, with the go-to example being the Twelfth Lock in Castleknock. “The guys up there are really inspirational,” Matt says. “A real driving force since this kicked off.”
The lock teems with life the Sunday after I visit Gary. Residents bathe. Kids dive into the Royal Canal from a gate that had been chained shut for months. A family sits up on their deck, drinking pints of Guinness, while a young woman plays guitar for her blind elderly mother. In the trees are bird houses. By the banks are some men fishing and on his boat, Luis Gomezcala hammers beams into the walls, which are lined with foil, “for the aliens,” his partner jokes.
In all, fifteen liveaboards are moored in Castleknock on this particular Sunday. Of those, two belong to Luis. The second, he is renovating as I arrive. Speaking over a stereo which blares Kiss and The Eagles, he explains that this task would take four months if done professionally. But in his case, it will take about 18. This is how he spends weekends as he works for an IT company from Monday to Friday. “I like building things with my hands. When I work, I find myself behind a computer. So I like grabbing a hammer, a drill.”
“People just want to live differently,” he says. “We have people living minimalistically, living with a smaller footprint. We lived through a recession. I had close friends who lost houses. I don’t want to commit to a 30-year mortgage when I don’t know what is going to happen in the next five years.”
Reflecting on the changes in Castleknock, he says that five years ago there were only three boats moored here. “Now there are 25.” It is a change that he only sees as good news. “The community is everything,” he insists. “If you want to see a place that has no boats, go down to where Broom Bridge is and walk the canal there. You will see shopping carts. Everything is horrible. People have picnics here!”
Once I leave the lock, Luis sends me a series of photos he took around Broom Bridge in Cabra. They show litter on the banks and in the water; cans, traffic cones, plastic packaging, a mattress. But among these is an image of a plaque mounted to the bridge. It reads:
“Here as he walked on the 16th of October 1843 Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i²=j²=k²=ijk=-1 and cut it on a stone of this bridge.”
Luis wants this plaque to be seen. He doesn’t want dumping to deter people from walking along that stretch of the Royal Canal and never find out what Sir William Rowan Hamilton discovered “in a flash of genius”. He wants people to spot this, to marvel at their surrounding environment. And as far as he is concerned, one way to do that is to up the number of mooring permits.
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Killian Broderick (Luis) & Steve O’Connor (Matt) & Claire Byrne (Gary)