Seven spots along the Grand Canal could potentially be used for kayaking, paddle boarding and canoeing, according to a recent survey commissioned by Dublin City Council and Waterways Ireland.
The stretch of the canal between Kylemore Road and Portobello – about 5km – could be a “community blueway”, said Humphrey Murphy, a consultant, at a meeting on 21 September of the council’s South Central Area Committee.
That would mean, say, local community groups become involved in providing water sports along the strip, said Murphy, the CEO of Irish Leisure Consultants (ILC), which did the research.
To attract more visitors, the whole canal area should be spruced up with better paths, lighting and informational signs telling a narrative of the place, said Murphy.
“There’s a high value given to the canal by those in the communities along it. There’s also perception that there’s number of opportunities there that haven’t yet been realised,” he said.
“The overall challenge then is how do we deliver on what people see as potential? How do we create that value?” Murphy said.
Where It May Work
Murphy’s report honed in on seven places along the Grand Canal where steps down to the water and boat storage could be added.
Ideally, an established watersports provider would come in to kick things off but then locals could be trained up to become instructors themselves, said Murphy.
Summertime activities could start up first, he said, and then hopefully they could be held year-round.
In the future, more water-sport infrastructure could be added for new activities, like slalom courses, canoe polo and flotillas, he said.
Murphy pointed to Cabra Kayak Club, which works with local communities to increase participation in paddle sports along the Royal Canal.
That rolled out in a similar way, he said. A contractor for Cabra Kayak Club found instructors in the local area, Murphy said, so it shifted to becoming a local club rather than one managed by an external company.
The aim is to increase the ability of local groups to deliver these activities, said Murphy. “To support the acquisition of equipment, kayaks, and so on over a period of time.”
“There needs to be programmes and a certain amount of hand holding for a period of two or three years to build up that sort of awareness and opportunity and engagement by the local communities in the on-water potential of the canal,” he said.
Vincent Jackson, an independent councillor, said there’s already kayaking at the Ballyfermot Youth Service Adventure Centre at Park West, which is further west along the canal.
The staff at the Ballyfermot centre could help with building more activities on the canal, he said. “It’s something that can offer so much.”
Attracting People to the Water
The canal has to feel more like a destination, if people are going to be visiting it to participate in watersports, said Murphy.
So they surveyed people – he didn’t say how many and who – to see what they think of the canal right now, and what they think could be improved.
People and organisations that ILC surveyed along the canal used words like “beautiful” and “tranquil” to describe the canal, said Murphy, because it’s a calm green space within a very urban area.
“As an area that, sort of, is a repository of heritage, particularly for the older residents in the area,” he said.
It’s vibrant with cycling and walking, he said, although people suggested there could be better paths, more bins and seating.
Signs about the canal’s history and biodiversity could attract people who don’t go near the canal right now, said Murphy.
“There’s plenty of room on the canal for more people,” Mick Kinahan, a Dublin representative of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, a charity that works to conserve waterways.
“Whatever we need to do to keep the canal nice, that’s what we need to do,” he says. “And if we can give people a better understanding of what the canals are about.”
Murphy says the canal should be animated and have better links to routes. “If those who are not taking part aren’t provided with a meaningful route to take part, particularly on the water, it simply won’t happen.”
People surveyed about the canal also used words like “neglected” and “under-utilised” to describe it, Murphy said.
Places along the canal aren’t well-lit enough at night, and there are also secluded areas where people feel they aren’t visible to others even during the day, he said.
Kinahan says that not enough is done to conserve the canals, particularly by those responsible for the maintenance and upkeep.
“We don’t look after any of them, either the canal or the rivers, we don’t look after them,” he said.
Six community groups do volunteer clean-ups of the Grand Canal and surrounding areas, according to Friends of the Grand Canal, which does monthly cleanups of the canal around Portobello.
Stephanie Dooley, who attends these cleanups, says more people should use the canal, as, even if that leads to more litter, it might also lead to more interest in cleaning it up.
Said Murphy: “If you’re using the canal, you’re less likely to be dumping into it.”
People surveyed said parts of the canal felt disregarded, said Murphy. “There were general anti-social issues around litter, drug-dealing, mugging and so on.”
But one survey respondent pointed out that whether or not something is considered “anti-social” behaviour depended on who was doing the activity, said Murphy.
They said a group of teenagers drinking beer might be perceived as more anti-social than a group of tourists drinking wine, said Murphy.
Máire Devine, a Sinn Féin councillor, said that perceptions of anti-social behaviour on the canal needs to change. “Mostly it’s been hassle-free enjoyment of the waterways, which we think we are, as I said, have come to value,” she said.
Kayaking at the Ballyfermot Youth Service Adventure Centre has changed perceptions of anti-social behaviour along the canal at Park West, said Jackson, the independent councillor.
“I just think that the canal is such a wonderful resource on our doorstep and for far too long as it’s been taken for granted,” he said.
Murphy said some areas should be zoned exclusively for habitats, though. “We have to be careful not to, to quite literally frighten the birds off the canal.”
Sophie Nicoullaud, an independent councillor, asked if there was a plan to create a swimming lido within the canal.
“I hope it is and if not, what type of barriers do we have? Paris has done it during the summer on a temporary basis,” she said.
Murphy said the watersports would likely have a positive knock-on effect in encouraging people to learn to swim.
But, “at the moment, there are issues around swimming in the canal that I can’t address here, that’s really Waterways Ireland can address that further,” he said.
“But I know there is a desire, it’s possible to swim in the canal, but I know that there are, as I say, limitations around that currently,” he said.
A spokesperson for Waterways Ireland said on Monday that “Swimming in manmade canals is not permitted under the current Bye-laws.”
“Unlike a river or the sea there is limited movement of water in canals which has the potential to create health risks for participants in immersive activity,” said the spokesperson.