Meet the people who live on Ireland's waterways

Floating the idea that you can live on Ireland’s waterways might not be as strange as it sounds. Rita de Brún meets some of our barge people

Meet the people who live on Ireland's waterways

Johnny Depp has a lot to answer for. When he played Roux, the handsome, guitar-strumming, pony-tail-wearing, barge-dwelling rogue who stole the heart of Juliette Binoche’s character Vianne in the movie Chocolat, he awoke a wanting in many for the freedom and avant-garde lifestyle, that only living on the water can bring.

That film was released in 2000. Intriguingly, that was the year in which the 48-foot barge on which Tullamore man Tom Doheny lives, was built as a live-aboard for a couple.

Doheny worked as a catering manager on the party boats on the Thames for nine years before returning home to live on the water: “I bought a narrow boat that I loved. Then seven years ago when the couple I was renting with got married, I bought a barge to live on. For me it’s a bachelor pad on the water.” It’s easy to nurture a romantic type notion of barge-dwelling, but while it is for many the epitome of living the dream, it’s no fairy-tale in that a certain amount of know-how is required.

“Make sure you have a mooring you’re happy with before you buy a boat,” advises Doheny. “Ensure the boat is equipped with everything you need. Remember that carbon monoxide can be a problem on boats, so alarms are vital.”

While some moorings have access to Wifi, sewerage pump-out systems and power, Doheny does not. “That’s because I choose to live the rural life. But it’s not a problem, as my boat has a holding tank and is entirely self-sufficient. You need that if you want a rural life on the water.”

To power his lights, Doheny runs the engine for an hour every day, and if that sounds iffy, it’s not. He has all he wants including a TV and a satellite system.

The year after Chocolat was released, Ger Loughlin (who incidentally has hair long enough to wear in a Johnny Depp style ponytail) first began living on the water with his German partner, Carolina.

They stayed ten years, with their two children being born during that time. “Our boat was 55 foot by 11 foot, with a 600 square foot interior,” says Loughlin. “We moved from a small apartment and we had more space on the barge than we had there.” Living with young kids on the water was tricky but doable. “We had a triple-lock system on the stairs and gates to keep them safe and we trained them to keep one hand on a rail and a life jacket on, when moving around the boat.”

I get a better feel for the wonderfully quirky dynamic on board when he describes the circular washing line they had on the back deck, and the parasol umbrella he placed above it so their clothes could stay dry in the rain. Theirs was a world in which boat neighbours would drop in whenever they choose, with no formality, and put on their overalls to help when they realised that as a newbie to the boat-dwelling game (as he was back then), he’d find himself peering at the boat’s diesel engine only to realise that for all he understood about it, he may as well ‘have been staring at a bowl of spaghetti.’ Loughlin and his family no longer live on the water, but the barge trip business he runs from Sallins, County Kildare takes him there every day.

As for how much cash would need to be splashed to buy a barge, he estimates that for something small, comfortable to live on and in good working order prices would start at €30,000 or €35,000. “For something larger, with an interior of 500 or 600 square feet, that’s well kitted out, you’d pay more than €100,000.”

Mooring matters

Alan Kelly with sons Ciarán & Liam below Ardnacrushain Clare

Alan Kelly with sons Ciarán & Liam below Ardnacrushain Clare

Alan Kelly vice president of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) wants to see more boating activity on the canals and more facilities provided: “Without private marinas on the canal, the future of living aboard is going to be difficult.” Kelly knows more than a thing or two about boat-dwelling having lived on the water with Adele, the woman who is now his wife.

Three years after the Chocolat movie was released, they bought themselves a 37 foot by 7.6 foot boat. “We knew if we could live together in that corridor type space, we could live together anywhere.”

They did and it worked out and they’re married now. Kelly describes their barge as a romantic place with a timber interior. “We stayed on the narrow boat for two years, then moved into a 45 foot by 10 foot boat for a few years. That felt palatial by comparison,” he laughs.

There are no statistics as to how many families are living full-time on boats on Irish waterways, but Kelly estimates that the number being lived on on Irish canals is somewhere in the region of 200. “And remember, most boats have double occupancy or a small family aboard,” he adds.

Acknowledging there has been ‘a little bit of heat generated in that some have been told they shouldn’t be moored where they are because they haven’t got this or that,’ he adds: “There’s a lot of misinformation circulating and a lot of misunderstanding among people about what is currently required of boat dwellers and what requirements the regulator would like to have in place but doesn’t currently have.” Confirming that the IWAI is actively negotiating with Waterways Ireland and working very successfully with them on a number of projects he adds: “Currently there are no regulations regarding living aboard in Ireland so that is an area that is currently under the radar and one that needs to change.”

Asked what’s at the core of the changes being sought under the Heritage Bill, as they relate to Waterways Ireland, that organisation’s spokesperson Katrina McGill says that they will enable Waterways Ireland to introduce bye-laws to facilitate the management of the canals.

“The [current] bye-laws were introduced in 1988 and the change in both how people use the waterways and the interest in diversifying that use, has grown significantly. It’s important to have bye-laws that reflect how the canals should be managed both currently and into the future.”

If introduced, the changes will bring increased revenue, which should result in better facilities being put in place. This is good news but it may not impact on Tom Doheny, who’s currently buying himself a house to live in.

At the close of our conversation, I asked if he ever fell off his barge. “Not really,” is his intriguing reply.


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