“Being innovative and thinking outside the box” are the main ways of getting noticed by potential funders for your business.

That’s according to Mary McInerney who recently opened a ‘boatel’,a beautifully decorated barge which features two en-suite cabins, a cocktail/wine bar and dining area, an outdoor patio and a stylish mix of artwork and furnishings.

Mary – who brought the barge to Enniskillen this week – and her Norwegian husband, Jorn Bjerknes have spent the past three years building the 70 foot, 26 tonne barge called ‘Lovely Leitrim’ which will provide floating accommodation in the high season and act as a pop-up wine bar or music venue to supplement their income in the low season.

Mary, originally from Galway, began hiring barges when the Shannon-Erne Waterway opened in 1994. She finally bought a barge seven years ago which she now lives on with Jorn. It is a 50 foot vessel called Froya. They dock at Keshcarrigan, County Leitrim but regularly traverse the waterways, setting down anchor wherever ‘floats their boat’.

Having lived on the water for so long, the couple are now determined to earn a living on the water.

Four years ago, when Mary and her husband were touring the lakes of Kerala, India on a houseboat, they had the “brainwave” that they would like to build their version of a houseboat and run it as a business on the Shannon-Erne Waterway.

Jorn immediately acquired a skipper’s licence in order to ferry his guests around the waterways.

They then set about acquiring the necessary funds to pay for their business venture. They sold houses and threw a lot of savings at the project – which has cost over €300,000. They were also lucky to secure over €90,000 from the Leitrim Development Company under the EU-funded LEADER programme.

In an era where access to funding is increasingly difficult Leitrim Development Company’s CEO Brian Smith has explained why he funded Mary and Jorn’s ‘boatel’. He said: “This business plan is for a multi-functional and multi-use barge/botel which will include a pop up restaurant, providing cookery demonstrations and a venue on the water for bands who want to play at festivals and events. It has many uses, apart from accommodation. The waterways are important in this part of the country and getting investment from abroad is important but also serving local needs is equally important, and that’s what this does.”

Mary is full of praise of Leitrim Development Company, in particular, its development officer James Duffy who “has been so supportive.” She commented: “He never got tired of us and we have called one of the cabins ‘James’!” 

Her advice to business people who are seeking finance is: “This is a project from the heart and we are determined to make it work as a business – the funders recognised that. We were being innovative and thinking outside the box and that grabbed their attention.”

The ‘boatel’ was built by Graham Thomas, of the Riversdale boatyard in Ballinamore, County Leitrim, who also built Froya. The couple then took the barge to Keshcarrigan, where they spent the past two and a half years decorating and finalising it.

“The steel hull was imported in laser cuts from England and was assembled piece by piece. There were 30,000 pieces and they were all numbered. It was like a jigsaw,” explained Mary. Gertie’s bar in Keshcarrigan was the couple’s postal address for the large packages of paint and building supplies that were delivered as the barge progressed.

Inside, guests are greeted by a stylish kitchen and guest area, with an elegant wine bar from Roche Bobois in Dublin. Comfortable leather armchairs and a stove provide a cosy, home-from-home feel and the sleek Radox radiators add to the impressive décor. The double beds in each cabin are decorated with Moroccan bedspreads and each ensuite features a shower and a wooden sink crafted by French-born carver Charlie Perpoil, who was instrumental in designing the barge’s interior. Guests can enjoy a meal and views of the water at the extendable dining table in the wheelhouse, which has a half door inspired by a cottage in Spiddal, in Mary’s native Galway.
“I don’t like the nautical theme that some people go for on their barges,” Mary explained. Instead, she has added a number of Indian/Moroccan hints to the décor. “We put our own stamp on it.” Despite difficulties attaching the modern radiators, Mary says: “I knew that I wanted them so I stuck to my guns. It has been eventful but we are so excited about the prospects ahead.”
She has used her contacts wisely, with original art work from various artist friends (framed by Enniskillen’s Ken Ramsey); curtains by The Fabric Library, Enniskillen; wine by her friend Enrico Fantasia, who she worked with in Sherridan’s Cheesemonger’s in Dublin; and interiors by Charlie Perpoil, who lives in Drumshanbo.

When the barge was finished, the Department of the Marine checked that it was water worthy, an alcohol licence was acquired and the business was ready for operation.

The first season “has been really good,” Mary reported. “We’ve had a number of out-of-state visitors.” Because of delays in the construction of the ‘boatel’ Mary and Jorn caught the end of the peak tourist season, therefore they are working hard to target the summer 2017 tourism market. In the meantime, they have already taken a number of Christmas party bookings and are planning a Moroccan-themed night on board (when there are no guests on-board, the main living area can be converted into a bar area with high tables and stools, seating up to 20 people).

Lessons learned to date include altering their prices and getting to grips with social media. “We’ve been so busy with the barge we still have to get to grips with facebook, twitter and Instagram,” Mary said.

Her advice for other potential ‘boatelers’ is: “You need to know what you are doing. We have a lot of experience of living on the water and we know the waterways very well. I would imagine if you didn’t know it really well it would be a difficult project to take on.”

Mary and Jorn are both qualified chefs who have experience of catering for Irish film and TV productions. They will cook on-board the vessel for guests, before leaving them in privacy. During the day, Jorn will skipper the ‘Lovely Leitrim’, while Mary will follow on their own barge, therefore guests will always have their hosts close at hand.

Mary took the ‘Lovely Leitrim’ to Enniskillen last week in order to network with locals at the Festival Lough Erne and hopes to take part in the food festival next year.

A boating enthusiast, she concluded: “This boat is going to be on the water for the next 100 years and I’m proud of that.”