Living on water gives you a new perspective on the city.CATHERINE CLEARY meets some people who have made their homes on or near the canals of Dublin, and have been transforming the waterworks with grass roots community efforts
BREFFNIE O’KELLY’S neighbours are tearing apart their recently-finished home to start building again. They’re not demented DIYers but a pair of moorhens nesting on the Grand Canal in city centre Dublin. Behind their nest, some Italian tourists dressed in red football strips are walking by and they wave over cheerfully. A man in a suit strolls along with a cardboard cup in his hand. Two women sit down for what looks like lunch.
We are sitting in O’Kelly’s back garden on the banks of the canal at Percy Place. The small deck looks on to a beautiful lush spot with a widescreen wild- and human life show for anyone with the time to sit and watch. Recently she saw a seagull swoop, snatch a duckling out of the water and carry it off – a graphic lesson on why ducks have such large broods.
It’s almost beyond belief that cold-eyed city officials once looked at the Grand Canal as an obsolete piece of 18th-century infrastructure and thought it best to concrete over it and use it as a sewer line and motorway.
The 1960s Dublin Corporation plan was changed in the face of public protests. Now the most prominent city stretches of the Grand Canal have been dredged and are looking deeper and cleaner than they have in years. People such as O’Kelly and others who work, live, visit and play on the canal are being brought together in a group to safeguard its future. And a new cycle path will bring thousands of people peddling along this linear park that links all kinds of different Dublins together (see p5).
“You’ve got the highly glamorous Wall Street canal to a Georgian canal to an allotment and artisan-y canal,” O’Kelly says. Her stretch is very peaceful and the birdlife is riveting. As well as the carnivorous seagull, they have a seen a cormorant eating an eel, battling to keep the wriggling meal from popping out of its beak. The event drew a small crowd of bystanders to watch the life-and-death struggle. Herons regularly stand watching the waters intently for lunch.
In the nine years she’s been living here, the canal has been improving slowly. And what about its night-time reputation? She has seen “one encounter that looked like a highly soulless and joyless experience for everyone concerned”. At night, some young people use a bench for “having a few cans and flirting. They treat it like they’d treat a park but the parks are closed at night.”
On the first Saturday of every month O’Kelly and her Friends of the Grand Canal group don gloves, pick up their litter pickers, and take to the banks with a small boat to clear litter out of the canal. Sometimes they will take as many as 40 black sacks of rubbish out of the water. She’s amazed at the variety of people who turn up to help. They get walkers, office workers who lunch on its banks, and others who see the notices on trees and several people through the Dublin Volunteers’ website.
Five years ago she went to a public meeting organised by then TD Chris Andrews to talk about life on the canal. “The thing on my mind was to clean it.” She collected e-mail addresses and the litter-picking group was formed. “It turns that annoying Bulmers can you see on your run into something you can do something about.”
Another devotee of the canal and its romantic and writerly potential is author John Banville. Much of the action in his Benjamin Black crime-fiction series is set around this area. As one of Dublin’s historic features, it is little changed since the 1950s era in which Black’s hero – a jaded Dublin pathologist named Quirke – investigates murky deeds. The fourth book in the series, A Death in Summer, is rooted in the area which, for a short while, was Banville’s own home.
“In the 1960s, I lived in a third-floor flat at 39 Upper Mount Street, the lease of which I had inherited from an aunt. It was a splendid place, two enormous Georgian rooms with kitchen and bathroom – of sorts – but of course it was horribly uncomfortable. I smartened it up considerably when I gave it to Quirke. I was very happy there, especially at weekends when the streets around the Pepper Canister emptied and there was silence in which to work. In particular I loved, and still love, Huband Bridge and the area around it.”
That bridge’s austere beauty (between Lower Mount Street and Baggot Street bridges) was captured in winter by German photographer Evelyn Hofer in the 1960s. It is a monument to the wealthy man after whom it’s named. A 19th-century barrister and director of the Grand Canal Company, Joseph Huband paid for the bridge out of his own fortune, making it more ornate than those paid for with company funds, many of which were named after other directors of the canal-operating company.
Does Banville visit regularly? “I do walk there often. When I was a child, visiting my aunt in Mount Street, I used to fish for minnows in the canal. On Herbert Place – where April Latimer lived in Elegy for April– there is the house Elizabeth Bowen wrote about in Seven Winters. There’s a plaque to her memory on the house. Across the canal from the Bowen house was a sawmills which I well remember, the noise of it and the marvellous smell of fresh-cut timber.”
The chairman of the new Grand Canal Group, which brings together all the interest groups, is City Council assistant area manager Bruce Phillips. He wants to see the disparate groups spread along this route come together “to get their interests aligned and work together more effectively”. At the very least this will help bridge the gap between public money and what needs to be done to maintain the canal. In the future, he would like to explore the idea of a walking route from the canal to the Dublin and Wicklow mountains.
The new Grand Canal Group will also try to recruit volunteer wardens who will tell Waterways Ireland or the City Council about any problems. These could be dog walkers or joggers who use the route regularly and have an interest in keeping it working well.
DOWN IN THE Grand Canal Basin at Ringsend, Mick Kinahan is standing on a 19th-century barge called – unromantically – Float Three. A dumb barge, it would have been towed by a horse or another barge during its working life. It’s in the basin as part of the Docklands Festival, lined with photographs of what can happen to a canal if it is not maintained.
The black-and-white pictures of the Royal Canal, with Croke Park in the background, show a mess of mud, rubble and rubbish with just a stream-sized trickle of water running through it. “We want to highlight the fact there’s a community out there along the canal all with an interest but who might not know about each other,” Kinahan says. A City Council official, Kinahan is also heavily involved in the volunteer Inland Waterways Association. Much of his work in the last 15 years has been encouraging boat owners to use the canals and keep them vibrant. He is also a man who loves the quiet watery stretches with a boyhood passion.
He believes there are around 60 people living at various points along the Grand Canal, most of them outside the city limits. “You’ll usually find them at places where there’s a train station, like Sallins or Hazelhatch.”
When he can, he spends as much time as possible on his Dutch cruiser. “A couple of winters ago I would come down on a Friday evening, start the boat up and take it out to the outer basin, going around in circles to charge the batteries.” Then he would moor the boat, hop off and buy fish and chips and a beer. “And I’d sit watching the lights of the city go on.”
The canal is something people are drawn to, he believes. He once jokingly blamed his late mother for his passion. Growing up in Ballyfermot, he was the son of a “country woman who had a dread of the canal so I concocted a story, bought a fishing rod for two and six and told her I was going fishing”. The rod was never used and a love of the canals was born.
Canal water is not stagnant, he explains. “It’s moving all the time, coming clear springs at Pollardstown fen.” But without maintenance “very quickly a canal reverts back to a dry ditch. It silts up and people use it as a tiphead.” He’s seen all kinds of wildlife, even a kingfisher, within the city, between the 11th and 12th locks at Adamstown. The small plastic shopping bags are not found as often, thanks to the plastic bag tax but black sacks are common. “I’ve seen kitchen sinks, baths, sofas, bicycles, motorbikes, cars. I’ve never seen a body, thankfully.”
Some boat users fear the city areas, but Kinahan has a few methods of dealing with kids who shout from the banks. “You can be firm and have the banter and, if you feel like it, you can let them on the boat.” He will throw sugary sweets in wrappers from the boat to kids on the banks. His next aim is to get a working dry dock in Dublin to carry out repairs. In March, his daughter Stephanie had her wedding reception on three canal boats. “People are still talking about it.”
The 55 guests at Neva Goor’s christening party will probably be talking about it for a while to come, too. On a bright Saturday afternoon, they clamber on to the newest boat on the canal for a naming ceremony and christening party. The Cadhla is a brand new Dutch replica of a Guinness barge. It runs on battery power and moves sedately up and down between the locks at Charlemont Place and the Grand Canal basin. Its owner, Mícheál Ó Cionna, hopes to offer cruising trips to theatregoers heading to the Grand Canal Theatre, depending on the timing of curtain-up. It’s a two-hour trip, slower than walking pace, from Charlemont to the theatre.
Ó Cionna also runs Liffey River Cruises and this is his first canal venture. “We get a lot of birthdays, 30ths, 40ths, stags and hens.”
“The canal doesn’t suit impatient people,” he says – it takes an age to bring the boat alongside a small jetty at Leeson Street bridge so I can get on during the christening party. Neva’s parents Alex and Zoe Goor wanted to do something different to celebrate her birth. “We live in the west of Ireland so we weren’t going to make everyone travel down.” Neva is four-and-a-half months and this is her first canal trip; it’s also a first for her parents, who both grew up in Dublin and are surprised by how lovely the canal is.
Christening guests Pam O’Loughlin and Mark Doyle haven’t been on the canal in 21 years. They’re a little disappointed at some of the rubbish in the water along the way. But “it’s been really relaxing. There’s nothing much you can do except sit and relax,” O’Loughlin says. “And you can’t escape from people,” says Susan Doyle, Neva’s grandmother. The eldest passenger today is the new baby’s 88-year-old great grandmother.
“How do they turn the boat?” someone asks. “They don’t. We’re going backwards now,” someone else explains.
At boat level, the canal is a whole different experience. The pace is ponderous, the views beautiful on a sunny afternoon and the passers-by watch the boat full of people, christening balloons pressed up against the windows of the cabin. “The thing that fascinates people again and again is going through the locks,” says O’Cionna. “People who live near the canal value it as an amenity. But an enormous number of Dubliners are blissfully unaware of what’s going on in the canal.”
Death on the water: Swans mystery
MYSTERY STILL SURROUNDS the deaths of almost 50 swans in the Dublin area in February. When swans were found dead on the Grand Canal at Portobello, the deaths were first linked to an illegal fish dump, later ruled out as the cause. Inland Fisheries Ireland inspectors found headless cod, dumped in the water near where the swans died.
Questions were also raised about the dredging work on the canal and whether it could have released fatal pollutant into the swans’ habitat. The Waterways Ireland report into the deaths said two lock chambers separated the dredging work from the swans. “Also, dredging has taken place several times throughout the last number of decades and no bird deaths have been recorded.”
But the swan deaths on the Grand Canal, while the most high-profile, were not the only deaths. A total of 48 dead swans were found around four Dublin locations. Twenty-eight swans died at the Malahide Estuary, 18 on the Grand Canal, one on the Royal Canal and one in Stephen’s Green. Most of the dead birds had an “acute diffuse hepatitis and splenitis”, which affected their hearts or their breathing.
It was reported that the birds had contracted botulism from the cod. But the scientists found no “clinical signs of botulism” and did not test for it. “Initial findings are suggestive of an infectious cause in many of the birds,” a report by the Department of Agriculture veterinary experts said. “Investigations are continuing in attempts to identify the cause or causes of these deaths.”
Here comes the barge
AS WEDDING MARCHES go, this one stopped traffic. Joy Levins and Chris Teusner were slowly making their way up the Grand Canal between Harold’s Cross and Portobello behind almost 70 swans last November. As they neared the lock and the swans were squeezed between the bow of the boat and the gates, they took flight. “It was magical,” says Teusner. People stopped to watch.
They got married in the Shelbourne Hotel and brought guests to Ely gastropub near the Grand Canal Basin, where their boat The Barossawas moored. They planned to honeymoon in the basin. Then, two weeks later, the big freeze came and ice, up to three inches thick, froze them in. After the thaw, dredging work on the Grand Canal stopped them leaving. Now they’re enjoying the happy accident of being allowed to stay in this vibrant city quarter. They’re known around the area as the honeymooners.
Levins’s family thought she was a lunatic when she bought a barge with her Australian musician boyfriend nearly a decade ago. It was a choice between a barge and the deposit for a house in Athy or another commuter town. What is it like living on a barge? Peaceful and comfortable, they say. Their heating bills for the freezing winter were around €400. At just over 500 sq ft inside, with outdoor decks, the barge is larger than many one-bedroom apartments.
They lived on a smaller narrowboat for six years at Sallins and then almost three years ago their dream home was delivered by lorry and craned into the canal. “We were able to moor up alongside and shift our belongings over from one to the other.”
The new boat, which they once sketched out the floor plan for on a beach in Australia, gave them so much new space, “we could swing the cat”.
It’s got a smart glossy kitchen with a large range cooker. A quick tour shows a second bedroom or utility room which Levins, who is a glass artist and DJ, uses as a studio, a bathroom with a bath and a proper porthole window. The bedroom at the back has windows on all sides and a door on to a small outdoor area. The boat builders in Warwickshire told them it wasn’t the first barge in which they had installed a cat flap.
Now life on the barge is ending as Teusner and Levins prepare to move to Australia for family reasons. The barge is for sale on gumtree.ie (without the mooring) for €149,000. They will be leaving with a set of extraordinary memories.
Joy Levins’s Cubeis featured in the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin until July 30th