Irish Lives: Living and working on a barge

Mary McInerney sold her house in Galway and moved into a 15-tonne boat, ‘ Frøya’

Mary McInerney and her husband Jorn Bjerknes onboard their barge, Frøya, on the canal at  Ballinamore, Co Leitrim.  Photograph: Brian Farrell

Mary McInerney and her husband Jorn Bjerknes onboard their barge, Frøya, on the canal at Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


Five years ago Mary McInerney sold her house in Galway. Home since then has been an elegant 15-tonne hunk of steel named Frøya .

“Frøya is the goddess of love and fertility”, explains her Norwegian-born husband Jorn Bjerknes. “God forbid,” laughs Mary, the mother of two adult daughters.

The pair met in Galway eight years ago at an outdoor party at the Town Hall Theatre where Mary was catering for 400 guests invited to the finale of a Druid production. He had recently arrived in Ireland and had intended to ride his motor bike around the coastline. “But someone told me, ‘no – head straight to Galway’.” At the party he spotted a chef wearing a ridiculous pink cowboy hat and that was that.

The couple’s barge is normally docked in Ballinamore Co Leitrim but can be found anywhere. They recently spent seven weeks in the Grand Canal Basin in Dublin relishing the convenience of walking across the road to the Bord Gáis theatre or getting to see an Ibsen play in the city centre. Tomorrow night they will make the hour-long trip (five minutes in the car) up the canal to see the fireworks display which marks the end of Ballinamore Family Festival.

“We do it every year. Our friends stand on the roof to get a good view of the fireworks and we will have Prosecco and nibbles,” says McInerney, who has spent more than a decade in the film catering business.

Beckett festival
On Tuesday the pair take the barge to Enniskillen for “Happy Days”, the Samuel Beckett festival, a scenic trip which brings them past the islands of Lough Erne and the beautiful Crom Estate. Accommodation won’t be a problem even if the town is booked solid. Taking their home with them has become a way of life although they did leave familiar waters two years ago for a dream holiday to Japan, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and San Francisco . “We went around the world in 80 days. We arrived home on the 80th day,” says McInerney.

Life may sound like a permanent holiday. But Bjerknes and McInerney, who have fed everyone from Donald Sutherland to Pat Shortt, at film locations around the country, are working on a novel business venture. This time next year they hope to launch Lovely Leitrim, a five-star floating hotel aimed at the luxury end of the market which will also operate as a pop-up restaurant wherever there is a hooley or festival on the Shannon-Erne waterway .

Through her network of contacts in the trade McInerney also has a hit list of celebrity chefs who will be invited on board to give cookery demonstrations.

The new barge will obviously be bigger than the 50ft Frøya, which screams house and garden without the garden. The living area is open plan with a solid fuel stove and wicker basket of fuel, inviting leather armchairs, antique chests of drawers, not to mention the Bob Dylan limited edition prints on the walls and bunches of wild flowers all around.

‘Thing that I miss’
“I hate it when if someone comes in or goes out, everyone else on a boat has a to stand up,” says Bjerknes, who is slowly coming to terms with a kindle, as space for books is obviously limited. “The only thing that I miss is a big wardrobe,” confesses McInerney who also concedes that tidiness is not optional on a boat.

“I would not take a present of a house now; I will do my best to live in a boat forever”.

At Christmas they take the barge out to Garadice Lake and moor up beside Church Island. “We woke up one year and it had snowed and everything was white. The stars were out and it was beautiful,” says Bjerknes.

When the canal froze in winter 2010 they had heat and water while many of their friends were coping with frozen pipes and flooding. “You could hear the ice creaking outside. It was like the Antarctic but we were very cosy ,” says McInerney.

Lovely Leitrim, like Frøya will be built by Graham Thomas who runs Riversdale Barges. It will be 70ft long with two en suite double cabins, a fully equipped kitchen, and an adaptable lounge/restaurant/conference room. McInerney, who has already found the perfect umbrellas for the roof-top terrace, is always on the look out for “nice things”.

She reckons their experience of feeding cast and crew on everything from Killnaskully to You’re a Star, ilte Towers and the 2007 Nicholas Roeg-directed film Puffball, will make working in a state-of-the-art floating kitchen doable.

“I actually used to love the challenge of getting power and water in a field,” says McInerney, while Bjerknes gets misty eyed at the memory of “peeling potatoes in a GAA pitch in Erris in Co Mayo”.

A keen horseman as well as a golfer and a qualified chef, Bjerknes has recently got an advanced power-boating certificate and will be the pilot on Lovely Leitrim. With a price tag of close to €300,000, the couple, who are optimistic about getting some Leader funding, know they will have to work hard to make it a success.

“It will be a nice life. We know we won’t make a fortune but it will be a nice way to make a living,” says McInerney .