Sleeping like a baby on a slow boat through Dublin

Travelling by barge along Dublin’s Grand Canal gives even locals a different perspective on the city – but not without a bit of work first

Tue, May 14, 2013, 02:00

It has become a running joke at home that a barge trip on the Shannon would drive me batty with boredom. But a barge in the heart of Dublin city? Now that’s another story.

Staying on the Scéal Eile , it is the personality of the barge that wins me over in a way no hotel room ever could. It is the sense of freedom, the sense of movement, the sense that I’m seeing my home town in a new way. It is a change in perspective – the city seen from lower down, from inside the Grand Canal Basin, from the enclosure of the lock at Lower Mount Street. I could have been anywhere, yet I was just steps from home.

Owned by Trish O’Grady and Mick McCullagh, Scéal Eile is a self-catering barge, giving visitors the opportunity to stay on board at Grand Canal Basin in the city, along with the option to move the barge through seven locks as far as Portobello and back.

Travelling on the barge involves a pleasant sense of industry – boarding the barge and moving through the locks is about being active, being part of something. There are locks to open and close; there is the tiller arm to steer; there is fending off to do, if you career into the bank and end up in the vegetation.You are not a passive recipient of the holiday experience; you’re an active participant in your own journey.

Other than our stay on board, it is the cocoon-like cosiness when putting baby to sleep that I recall. It is something beyond silence – a stillness present in the wood-lined bedroom – and baby sleeps, well . . . like a baby.

It is the curiosity of passers-by who stop to wonder and take photos of our endeavours, and it is the surprisingly emotional beauty witnessed as we go under Mount Street Bridge and find ourselves in the verdant watery avenue of the canal with all its burgeoning foliage.

Building a business
The barge, painted deep red and cream (to match Trish O’Grady’s delicious homemade scones and jam), was bought in Liverpool in 2006. Mick McCullagh took on the task of building the interior without any previous carpentry or plumbing skills, learning on the job to create a comfortable space which has now become the couple’s business.

They genuinely love this barge. They talk of the sense of freedom they have experienced while on board, the sense of community felt when they lived on the Grand and Royal canals in Co Kildare, and the joy of taking the barge from canal to river and on to lake as they crossed the country on the inland waterways. Now others have the opportunity to experience something of the same romance and excitement.

Inside, it is surprisingly large, with a kitchen area that seems bigger and more functional than that of my apartment. There is a sofa bed and a comfy armchair, a fold-out dining table with four chairs, a television with Saorview and kids’ DVDs. Best of all, there’s a fire, which keeps the barge warm as toast in the evening and the early morning chill. The biggest surprise is the king-size bed and bunk beds, all fitted neatly below a curved wooden roof, and the roomy bathroom.

Whoops of excitement emanate from the bedroom when Lúí (age five) and Rohan (almost two) find pirate balloons, telescopes and eye-patches under the pillows of the bunk beds. They race to look out the porthole windows; discovering there is a television on board only heightens the excitement. What had previously been a “boaf” to the toddler becomes emphatically a “ boat! ”.

As the kids are fitted with life-jackets and kept entertained below deck, McCullagh shows me how to use the key to start the diesel engine. We untie the bow (front) and stern (back) ropes and move across the outer basin of the Grand Canal, leaving the Marker Hotel and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre behind.

We move under the bridge at Pearse Street towards the measuring bridge, the lowest bridge on the Grand Canal. Its height means we lower the deck canopy before turning sharply towards the first lock at Maquay Bridge. The locks must be manned by the lock keeper and a phone call to Waterways Ireland is essential when cruising. At Mount Street, the lock keeper works one side of the locks while I attempt to manhandle a giant key to open the other side – it is fun but I am glad to have the experts on hand.

O’Grady explains how to keep the barge, which moves on a pivot, straight. Turning the tiller arm the opposite direction to the way you want to go keeps it on the right track. Where there are many locks in quick succession, McCullagh advises that travelling slowly is a good idea, giving a bit more throttle when you need to change course.

If you want to stop the barge, you put it into reverse. There is a lot to take on and the couple generally provide guests with an hour’s coaching in the outer basin at the outset of their stay. While some visitors may choose to go west towards Portobello, others may wish to use the barge simply as alternative accommodation in the city centre. It can sleep up to four adults and two children, and is non-smoking.

Later in the day, we return to the inner basin opposite Boland’s Mills. From our mooring spot, we can see Barrow Street through a gap in the industrial monoliths opposite. We go for a walk to Grand Canal Square just steps away, and eat in Ely.

Sauntering back to the barge, we admire the pink streaks of sunset rippling in the water and listen to the murmur of those on board boats with dreamy names such as Lone Ranger , Walkabout , Lady Jeanette and Suncrest .

Later that night, I stay up too late, carousing on a neighbouring boat. The Dublin Rally is on and a friend’s parents are moored in the basin for the night. But sin scéal eile.

A two-night stay on board Scéal Eile costs from €300 for two people. The weekly rate is €810 including discount. 087-2739085,

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