Barge dwellers of Dublin city: 'This way of life is possible here'

 

IN NOVEMBER, Chris Teusner and his fiancee, Joy Levins, set sail from Sallins, Co Kildare, for their wedding in Dublin. In the capital, they got permission to moor their houseboat at the otherwise empty Grand Canal Dock and hoped they could incorporate it into their wedding reception. But then the weather turned, scuppering not only their plans for the big day but also their route home.

Freeze-overs, dredging and maintenance work along the canal stranded the couple, and they have remained there ever since. They spent a quiet winter in an unlikely honeymoon spot, though the surroundings had a certain character: otters would bob along the water’s surface, delinquent teens would plunge 20m from the top of an adjacent mill into the canal, and rock bands would pound away in a studio across the water, the rattle of passing Darts echoing the percussion.

“It’s been a brilliant experience,” says Teusner, a music teacher who runs workshops around Ireland for Songschool. The only thing that bothers him is when people assume it must be freezing on board. “I don’t want to say that people look down on barges in Ireland, but it’s not really considered an accepted way of living. Our houseboat is beautiful, it’s all-mod-cons and it’s probably warmer than most houses. That’s been one of the pluses of having it in a place where people aren’t used to seeing one: it’s a reminder that this way of life is possible here.”

When the annual Dublin boat rally congregated around Grand Canal Dock during the first week of May, Teusner and Levins suddenly had neighbours throwing barbecues and organising film screenings and tours of the city.

“It was a dream,” says Teusner. “If Waterways Ireland gets permission to have permanent resident berths it could be like that all the time, and there would be a huge boost in tourism from the UK.”

The couple currently have just one full-time neighbour. Vinnie Troy, a 39-year-old painter and decorator, arrived among a fleet of 17 boats from the Royal Canal on May 1st. Grand Canal Dock was the farthest Troy had ventured on his barge, Vazon B, in almost five years of living on it. But when it was time to turn back home to Castleknock three weeks later, there was a hitch. The fleet sailing across the Liffey to Spencer Dock for a scheduled ascension back to the Royal Canal didn’t get far, because the Irish Rail lifting bridge was broken.

For most, this meant either heading south to the Shannon or leaving their boats at Grand Canal Dock. Of the latter group, Troy is the only one apart from Teusner and Levins still living there.

“A location like this in nearly any other European city would be constantly packed out with boats. If you look at those apartments across the way, I’m sure people paid unbelievable amounts of money for them. This cost me €135,000,” he says, gesturing at the barge’s oak-panelled interior. “And I’m sitting in the same place they are. The only problem is that there are so many good restaurants around that I haven’t cooked once in six weeks. I’m burning through money.”

Perched over a laptop and a beer at the kitchen counter of his 17m barge, Troy says there’s no chance of getting bored or lonely so close to the city centre. He’s a warm, easy-going character – “If you’re in a hurry on a canal, you’re in the wrong place” – and admits he hadn’t a clue how to operate a barge before buying one. “You learn as you go, and it’s only €126 a year – sure, you’d spend that much on a night in town,” he says.

“The downside is that the infrastructure could be better. What you have to realise is that people living on boats in Ireland is a relatively new thing. There are only about 100 of us doing it. Nobody wants to set things up for that small a number. Luckily I have friends who can help with mechanical and electrical issues. My post goes to me ma’s house, but it’s a good excuse to get down there and raid the fridge.”

Another lift of the Irish Rail bridge at Spencer Dock is scheduled for today, and Troy is hoping it will work this time. “It’s a lovely place here, but I have my life back in Castleknock,” he says. “Though I’d come back again in a flash.”

For Teusner and Levins it’s not so simple. For family reasons they’re moving to Australia (their barge, Barossa, is named after the valley there that Teusner comes from), and have reluctantly put the boat up for sale. “It’s sad to leave,” says Teusner. “But that’s life. Hopefully someone can put it to good use and the momentum will continue.”