On a sunny day on the Royal Canal, Eolain Downey might be mistaken for a pleasure craft operator standing aboard the 35ft long narrowboat named The Little Otter. For the 21-year-old Maynooth University student, however, this is home.
He has taken to the water as a means of avoiding the high rents in the Co Kildare town, and says the cost of the boat per month has worked out at roughly half of the cost of student accommodation.
“I don’t have a lot of money. It wasn’t a wealthy family solution,” he says. “For me it was either get a car and stay at home, rent for exorbitant fees or buy a boat.”
Normally he is moored at a lock several kilometres outside of Maynooth, a town that was at the centre of controversy recently when an investment fund bought out a housing estate ahead of first-time buyers. Downey says trying to get student accommodation in Maynooth is "like trying to win a lottery ticket".
Using his savings and a loan he purchased the boat in August 2020 in Co Offaly, and with his monthly costs at around €370, he now has his own mobile living space. His main monthly outgoings are the loan repayment, fuel and groceries. Insurance costs for the year are around €300. His electricity comes from solar panels on the boat’s roof which he installed himself.
“When I pay it off I’ve got something for myself, something that’s an asset that I could potentially sell on.”
He works in a coffee shop and spends roughly five days a week on the boat and the remainder of his time at the family home in Co Meath.
Downey is not alone in seeing the attraction of this unorthodox living arrangement at a time when dwelling on land is so costly.
DJ and radio presenter Claire Beck saw the potential back in 2017 when she returned to Ireland from a stint abroad. Working as a freelancer, she found it difficult to get accommodation in her price range as “the rents had jumped up so much”.
After an evening’s browsing on a boat-selling website, her plans changed. She found a canal boat, fell in love with it and quickly did a deal and set herself up to live aboard it permanently at a mooring point in Co Kildare.
“I saw this boat and I was like ‘that’s my boat’. It made sense for me to do that rather than paying rent while I wasn’t working full time.”
During the first lockdown in 2020 she and three of her neighbouring vessels remained at a mooring point on the edge of their 5km radius and inadvertently formed their own bubble.
“The first thing we did was untie and move a few kilometres away from the road access so we could be completely isolated.”
As the restrictions eased, she moved her boat along the Grand Canal and on to the Shannon.
“If you survive your first winter then it’s for you,” she says of living aboard. “I think some people can get disappointed with that because it’s not the same as living on land. You can’t just come in and turn your key in the door.”
Luis Gomezcala purchased his first narrowboat in 2018, and just before Ireland’s went into Covid lockdown last year he decided to trial live on it with his partner Kristina Moiseja. Initially they kept up rent on their land-based accommodation but they have since allowed that lease to lapse, fully committing to life on the Royal Canal.
This first boat was, and still is alongside their second, newer one, moored at a lock near Castleknock, Co Dublin. Despite the din of the M50 traffic and rumble of passing trains in the background, the marina feels more rural than its suburban surroundings.
“Castleknock is a great place to be, the community here is great,” Gomezcala says. Even during Covid local people made use of the green space around the lock.
“We were isolated [on the boat] but we were looking outside the window and saw a vibrant community so the isolation didn’t feel so bad.”
Their new boat Sláinte was delivered as an empty shell and it’s roughly twice the width of a regular narrowboat. Gomezcala built the interior himself, creating a bedroom, full bathroom with washing machine and shower, a large kitchen/living space as well as a home office space which now doubles as a room for the couple’s three-month-old baby Sophie.
“We have plenty of space and the baby seems happy. This boat rocks a little bit and helps the baby to sleep.”
Gomezcala, originally from Venezuela, grew up around boats, and was swayed to make the move having seen other boating communities in the UK and Europe and initially acquired their first boat as a holiday home.
A strong sense of community at the lock was not something Gomezcala was expecting but is clearly grateful for.
“A couple of people here got Covid and you saw everyone just rushing to help them. I thought if for some reason I got that they’d help me in the same way so that gave me an extra bit of safety . . . We take care of each other.
“Communities also have a role. We live here, we have a responsibility to keep the vicinity of the boat tidy. This place doesn’t belong to me, it’s a public space and I need to respect it.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Downey.“The boating community gets blamed a lot [for pollution] despite the fact that I would say that the boating community is the most concerned because it’s their backyards . . . I’m always pulling crap out of the canals and putting it in bins.”
Despite the freedoms offered by boat-living, it is not without its drawbacks. Some of the facilities at Castleknock, such as the pump-out station for human waste and water tap, have been broken for at least the last three years. These facilities are managed by Waterways Ireland (WI), the cross-Border navigational authority.
WI provides facilities at larger mooring points where residential mooring permits are given, like at Grand Canal Dock. Facilities there include electricity, water and provision of bin services which are looked after by a private contractor.
In a statement, WI said: “On the Grand and Royal Canal, there are numerous moorings. 12 pumpouts, six service blocks with toilets and showers and two sets of laundry facilities.”
It added that the agency “is in the process of commissioning a feasibility study to investigate the options for sustainable models of on-water living developments on the Grand and Royal canal networks. This study may inform future development plans for the Dublin canals and the wider network”.
One problem identified by Gomezcala relates to his postal address for the boat. “We went through a long process to get an Eircode” and he created a postbox on the canalside. However, deliveries ended up going to a nearby hotel “or to other people and I’ve lost a lot of parcels”.
Angus Laverty, public affairs manager with An Post, said: "We have customers all over who get their mail delivered to their boat or their barge . . . The general principle is there shouldn't be a problem and we have always done it."
She said the issue with Gomezcala’s deliveries would be investigated.
Demand for boats has increased right across Europe in recent years, with Gomezcala saying he has a waiting list of about eight people looking to buy his original boat when the time comes to sell.
Downey intends to do a Masters in Trinity College Dublin next year, and plans to continue to use the boat as accommodation in the long term and simply move it up the canal closer to the city.
He contracted Covid-19 last year and found the boat to be the ideal self-isolation location. “I live on the boat alone so it was a chance to have my own space without having to worry about giving it to other family members, so I was really grateful for that.”
Downey adds: “I think [the canals] are a massive asset that the government could be making money off...if the government were to rent [spaces] out, you’ve got students that could be paying for boats, you’ve got long term and short-term solutions and tourism. We’ve got a beautiful canal system that isn’t being used to its full potential.
“I don’t know if I’ll stay in the boat forever, but I’d definitely recommend it to people.”
As for Beck, she says her “main motivation was being able to be close to nature and being able to move and go off on little trips”.
“It’s very peaceful, it’s difficult to be stressed out when you’re on a boat.”