Photo by Shane Raymond

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Across from Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, on a recent Friday near the canal at Portobello Square, Sean O’Connell, a resident of the locality, points and jabs his finger at the air.

“You won’t talk over me,” he bellows at Bacik, as the others ask him to quieten down.

The group were gathered to discuss four barges that had become trapped on this stretch of canal due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions, which saw locks along the canal closed.

The nearby drinkers lining the edge of the Grand Canal look up from their cans in concern as this meeting of locals breaks apart in anger.

Some of those at the meeting want the boats to stay. They say they dissuade bad behaviour. Others want them gone, arguing that the boats are a nuisance, and may become short-term lets, hosting more antisocial behaviour.

Meanwhile, Waterways Ireland, the authority in charge of maintaining and managing the Grand Canal, has stated that many of the people currently living along the canal are doing so illegally.

Waterways Ireland has told boat owners via email that, if the boats are still there 10 days after the canal locks reopen – which at the moment is set to happen on 29 June – a crane will come along and lift them out of the water and onto the land, where they would be put up for auction after a month.

“A Cheap Alternative for Somewhere to Live”

The residents of the four boats now moored at Portobello Harbour are a mixed group.

There’s Gary Long, who lives on a boat he bought last July and is only now finishing renovations on. It still smells of woodwork.

Before Covid-19 hit, he moved his barge 500 metres every five days, keeping him in line with Waterways Ireland’s bylaws which deal with staying in one place in the canal for too long.

His original idea was for the barge to be a “cheap alternative for somewhere to live”, but now he has plans to open a cafe on the rooftop and an art gallery inside.

Long started an online petition asking Waterways Ireland to give permits for the boats to stay. In just 24 hours, a thousand people signed it.

There is also Beau Donelly, who says he stays on his nearby barge when he’s working in Dublin.

The rest of the time, he says he is in Kilkenny, spending time with his family or exchanging angry emails with Waterways Ireland. He has started a GoFundMe to launch a legal challenge against their policies.

“We understand that we are in breach of waterways by-laws, but Waterways Ireland by-laws are stupid,” Donelly says.

“They restrict use on the canal and they don’t allow for people who are in situations where they need to stay on a boat because they are priced out of traditional accommodation,” he says.

And there is Ben McDonald, who says that if he wasn’t able to stay on his boat, he doesn’t know how he would get to see his 11-year-old daughter.

McDonald says he was living in Ranelagh when he and his partner broke up. To stay local, he bought a boat and says he enjoys the way of life, even if it is “a bit like camping at times”.

“I would hope that Dublin would start to embrace the boats and the canals,” McDonald says. “That it would open up to be somewhere like London and Amsterdam where it’s an asset to the city to see these canals full of light and these boats with these lovely communities on them.”

Reg McCabe, the public relations officer for the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI), a “voluntary body of waterways’ enthusiasts”, would also like to see the canals put to more use.

“The harbour in Portobello should be reinstated […] And that harbour should facilitate a small marina with residential berths and commercial berths,” McCabe says.

Sail Agreed

The sun drops and breaks up the dense, wet air. There is a festival atmosphere or, at least, the whiff of a festival toilet area.

Among the group in favour of barges becoming permanent parts of the local community, Senator Bacik stands with her dog, a tiny, ginger Yorkie named Ginny.

Bacik, who lives just streets away, says that late at night, she sees large groups drinking together and lone figures publicly urinating.

“This area has always been neglected,” she says. “The guards come down, they sweep the place, they move people on, and then people come back.”

Bacik says that by having a boat in the area, “there’s a very positive spin-off effect on curbing antisocial behaviour along the canal because, if you’ve got rows of people living on both sides of the path, much fewer people are going to congregate there”.

Later, she sends on an explanation of “defensible space” theory, a city design framework which says – among other things – that when outsiders feel like they are being watched by residents, there is less crime.

Long, who lives on one of the boats, makes a similar argument.

“There was a lot of antisocial behaviour along the canal but, since I’m living here, a lot of it has stopped. People were jumping on the boat, people were drinking along the canal at night,” he says.

“I just go out and ask them to stop. Generally speaking, they’re not that bad,” Long says. “As long as you’re not confrontational: ‘Please guys, do you mind? I live here.’ If you don’t go out with an attitude, you won’t get attitude back.”

The chair of the local neighbourhood watch, Fiona Hayes, says residents in the apartments nearby say fewer people have been drinking, urinating and playing music late at night on the boardwalk since Long’s barge had moored there.

Hayes says pumping facilities being installed at the dock would allow for a cafe toilet, which would reduce the number of people urinating in the area.

Boat Sides of the Argument

The boats Waterways Ireland has asked to leave are taking up space on platforms made for vessels to moor temporarily while passing through , a spokesperson says.

Waterways Ireland cannot give out residential permits without planning permission and access to services like sewage pumpout facilities, none of which exist on the stretch between Portobello and Grand Canal Dock, the spokesperson says.

In Dublin city, they only have planning permission for 20 residential berths and the waiting lists for those are long, the spokesperson says.

“Some barges on the circular line in Dublin have been moored illegally for 12 months,” the Waterways Ireland spokesperson says. “Staying there for more than five days is in breach of the law.”

Jim O’Riordan, chairman of the Dublin branch of the IWAI, says there are quite a few people living on canal boats without residential permits.

“Most of them don’t want to bring attention to themselves, because they’re afraid that Waterways Ireland will come along with a big crane some day,” he says.

As of now, Long says he has until 10 July to move from the area, but he plans to submit his online petition, along with letters from police and politicians, to Waterways Ireland as part of an application for a commercial licence.

Waterways Ireland welcomes applications for commercial permits and has already granted five for businesses in Grand Canal Dock and two near Mespil Road, the spokesperson says.

But, again, these assess the need for planning permission and facilities, as well as whether the business would hinder canal navigation or local businesses and residents, the spokesperson says.

If Long doesn’t get a commercial licence, he’s not sure if he will be breaking the rules if he returns to moving the boat half a kilometre every five days, he says.

“It’s a grey area, there’s no real concrete anything with them [Waterways Ireland],” Long says.

Residents on the whole have “mixed views” about the boats though, says Hayes, the chair of the neighbourhood watch. Some were concerned they would be used as short-term lets, she says.

Outside Long’s boat on Friday , those who want the boats to leave have gathered. They talk about the tag that someone had spray-painted along the side of Long’s barge and about the rubbish in the area and drink and drugs and urine.

“There’s a hidden agenda here, without a shadow of a doubt. This is not just the utopian idea of, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have barges on the canal?’” says Patrick Gavan, who lives on nearby Warren Street.

“No. Sorry. It is going to be for hens and stags when we do have tourists again,” Gavan says.

Shane Raymond

Shane Raymond is a freelance journalist based in Dublin

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