There’s no shortage of people curious about living on Dublin’s canals. To wit: the regular queries from visitors to the Waterways Ireland Visitors’ Centre in the Docklands.
“I get one person a day in here, asking about residential boats,” says Ifty Finn, manager at the centre. Some are tech workers wanting to be near work, some are college students looking for cool digs, others are wistful holidaymakers.
But, while the market is there and adding more residential boats to Dublin’s canals could be an economy-booster, it’s unclear when it’s going to happen.
Sitting with the Minister
At the moment, you can’t get a permit to live all the time on a houseboat. But plans to introduce residential permits for boats on Ireland’s canals have been afoot for a while, as part of a package of changes to the bye-laws that currently govern the country’s waterways.
In early 2014, Waterways Ireland, a cross-border government body that manages the canals, held a public consultation on changes to the existing canal bye-laws. There was much in the document that regular boaters were unhappy about.
The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI), a voluntary group that represents people who use the canals, took issue with a five-day permit rule that would force boats to move often, as well as fixed penalty fines, and generally high fees.
There were a few issues with residential houseboat permits, too.
On the one hand, they give individuals certainty in terms of location and cost, said Gregory Whelan of the IWAI. “But they are only for one year at a time, this makes decisions on things like childcare and schooling very difficult.” The IWAI wants to see permits for longer periods and an “open and transparent pricing policy”.
After a fractious consultation process that saw more than 2,000 submissions, there were some amendments, but most details of the exact revised bye-laws are secret until the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht signs them. The problem is, it’s unclear when that might be.
They’ve been sitting with the minister a while. “The bye-laws are currently with the minister for signature,” said Katrina McGirr, spokeswoman for Waterways Ireland.
But the press office at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht says there is “ongoing liaison” between the department and Waterways Ireland as they finalise the draft bye-laws.
“The draft bye-laws are being reviewed to identify any legal issues prior to final drafting,” said Treasa Seoighe, in the department’s press office.
Whelan, at IWAI, says there still needs to be agreement reached with communities who use the waterways. “The proposed Waterways Ireland Canal bye-laws do not put user requirements, tourism development and local communities at the centre of the regulations,” he argues.
IWAI are open to talking. “We wrote twice to the previous minister and two letters and one email to the current minister. Both declined to meet us,” he said.
Living on the Water
If the minister signs the bye-laws, and if the final bye-laws are the same as the draft version, then one of the major changes for Dublin (and elsewhere) will be the introduction of residential permits. Because there are no explicit provisions for living on the waterways at the moment, it’s difficult to say how many people are doing it.
“The main areas that people are living in are Shannon Harbour, Sallins and Hazelhatch,” says Whelan. There are a few people in the Grand Canal Basin and a couple of dedicated houseboat-mooring facilities at Shannon Harbour and Sallins. “The one at Shannon Harbour is dormant, as users felt the charge and rules imposed were too onerous,” he said.
For Dublin, the first regulated year-round houseboat moorings would likely appear at Grand Canal Dock. Already, the berths across from Boland’s Mill create a picturesque waterside community: a cluster of houseboats, office boats, and rental boats.
“It brings a real holiday vibe to the area,” said Conor Brennan, strolling back to his boat on Sunday afternoon. He lives there as it’s near his work and cheap, he says.
Brennan says some of his friends pay well over €1,000 a month in rent for their apartments nearby. If the bye-laws are approved, the cost for a residential boat permit in Grand Canal Dock would be €3,500 a year, plus the the cost of services such as water, electricity and refuse, according to McGirr, of Waterways Ireland.
Brennan, a Belfast native, says that living on a boat does create one problem for him. Technically, he has no permanent address, which makes it tough to get post. But he uses his work for that at the moment.
There’s a magical side of living on the water, he said. The night before, he’d had a party. He and some friends had sat on top of his boat in the early hours, and watched a swan glide past, close to the boat, with cygnets on its back.