Directional signs are usually helpful. You will find them printed in both Irish Gaelic and English.
Prior to Glenda and I leaving on our Irish vacation, I searched around the internet to see what I might learn about driving across Ireland. What might I encounter?
Of course, I knew beforehand that I would be sitting in the right-hand seat of a rental car while driving on the opposite side of the road. “I’ve been driving for fifty years. How hard could that be?” I thought. “Give me a couple of days, and it’ll become second-nature.” Ah, the joys of blissful ignorance.
I also discovered Spain leads Europe in the number of annual traffic accidents. Ireland is second. “Hmm,” I thought as butterflies filled my stomach. “Not to worry. At least Ireland isn’t the worst place in Europe to drive.”
Then I learned to expect “round-abouts”…lots and lots of round-abouts. I’ve encountered a few here in the States, and found most a bit puzzling. Still, learning to drive through round-abouts would prove just one small part of the great adventure, right?
Maps revealed an extensive network of mostly two-lane highways throughout Ireland. “That’s good,” I thought. “I do a great deal of highway driving here, so I’ll at least be comfortable with that.” Uh-huh.
We arrived in Dublin on a Saturday morning, but wouldn’t pick up our rental car until Monday. That gave us plenty of time to view the city from cabs, a tour bus, and simply while strolling along the sidewalks. It also provided me the opportunity to witness Irish drivers in action – and immediately began to panic followed by working myself up into a tizzy. As a word of advice - don’t do that to yourself. You’ll have ample time to panic after you first crawl behind the steering wheel at the rental car agency.
Dublin traffic isn't too bad on weekends, but this photo is really misleading. For whatever reason, it was taken during a brief respite.
The clerk asked if I also wanted to upgrade the rental car insurance to essentially a “walk away” policy. At this point, I was thoroughly convinced we would become embroiled in a massive traffic accident and likely die. I eagerly grabbed the offer while saying to hell with the cost. Another word of advice – purchase the “walk away” insurance.
I had also pre-ordered a GPS for the car (managed to think of that). I’m glad I did, but soon learned to keep maps handy for reasons I’ll explain later. The GPS “spoke” in a soothing woman’s voice with a dandy British accent. I enjoyed the lady’s voice at first, but at times grew to hate her.
Finally, the clerk reminded me to not fill the car with gasoline. Virtually all their cars run on diesel which I found fascinating given the price differential here in the States. Fuel isn’t cheap over there, but fortunately the cars get great mileage. That’s a good thing since you encounter few and most often no service stations between towns.
An attendant showed me the basics of how to use the car’s gadgetry, beginning with how to start the damned thing. After that we were all prepared to go, so taking a death grip on the steering wheel, I eased through the agency’s gate and immediately turned left with the traffic. Yep, I remembered everything seems backwards.
It was a successful beginning. As an aside, we met an American couple a few days later who admitted to wrecking their car before getting it out of the agency’s parking lot. At least I avoided that ignominy. Indeed, driving Irish roads is always a popular topic among fellow tourists staying at B&B’s. It was comforting to learn the other drivers were scared shitless the same as me.
I don’t remember much about driving out of Dublin. I looked neither left nor right but kept my eyes glued on the road ahead while a tightening knot grew between my shoulder blades. Finally we reached a four-lane highway and we were on our way!
Nice road, right? No problems, right? Nothing to worry about. Riiiight...?
It was at Kilkenny I learned to decipher the round-about mystery. When entering one, remember - danger is always approaching from the right. In all cases, there are four exits.
- Exit 1 is the first to your left.
- Exit 2 permits you to continue on your original route.
- Rolling on around to Exit 3 allows you to go right from your original route – essentially a conventional right turn but going the long way around where you turn left to go right. Got that?
- Exit 4 means you circumnavigate the round-about and drive in the opposite direction down the road you just arrived on (like a U-turn).
On the second day I encountered true Irish two-lane highways. In the States, traffic lanes are wide enough to allow a little “drift” room. That’s not the case in Ireland. The typical highway is narrow, winding, hilly and filled with surprises. I was constantly finding myself drifting to the left in the face of oncoming traffic. That’s not a good thing considering roads are usually lined by stone walls covered in vegetation that grows right to the edge of the pavement. In other words, there’s no shoulder and it sometimes appears that oncoming traffic is headed right at you.
There is no telling how often Glenda told me to "Stay right" otherwise I would have tangled with the bushes. Having someone in the left seat to keep you oriented is invaluable. If you can see the centerline from the driver's seat, you're too far left. You'll know you're too far right if you sideswipe someone.
There's a pull-off here as you can see, but otherwise notice the road width with zero shoulders. Yes, this is a 100 kilometer per hour highway. The views make the hassle all worth it.
It seems the Irish see little reason to spend money on trivial matters like warning signs. You can be driving along, top a hill, and find a one-lane bridge right in front of you. In one case, my lane ended at the corner of someone’s home that jutted out into the asphalt. You would think…oh never mind. Also, more often than not there is no shoulder and you sometimes come upon someone walking or bicycling in your lane – or livestock, or a horse-drawn cart.
Meanwhile, Irish drivers seem oblivious to all this and speed right along. It would appear Ireland’s traffic accident record is well earned. My goal was to avoid supporting their statistics.
Did I mention keeping a wary eye out for wandering livestock? Yes, I believe I did!
Driving through towns can be a tight squeeze, especially in villages that allow parking half-on, half-off sidewalks.
See "Read More" just below right
I found a place to turn around as the lady said, “Recalibrating”, and managed to return to the main road and pull out a map. I have no clue where the lady was taking me, but the map showed an obviously better route to Blarney, which I took. Of course the lady began yelling at me and “Recalibrating,” so I yelled back at her and finally turned her off. That shut her up.
We didn’t have any more trouble until the following day at Tralee. We were trying to find our B&B when a driver raced up behind me and rode my bumper. I glanced in the rearview mirror and in that moment, I heard, “ping.” You know how some sideview mirrors have a turn signal mounted at the outer edge? Did I mention traffic lanes allow no drift room at all? Well, I had drifted left a foot or so while looking back, swiped against a shrub and the turn signal gizmo disappeared.
Upon arriving at our B&B, we discovered the radio antenna which jutted vertically from the top of the car was no longer vertical at all. It bent back at a ninety-degree angle and all its plastic covering was stripped off. I don’t know when or how that happened. Swear to god!
Be prepared to drive through rain, lot's and lot's of rain. You get used to it.
When I arrived at the Dublin airport and turned in the rental car, I pointed out the damage. The attendant nodded without saying a word, his knowing eyes expressing he had seen it all many times, quite possibly several times every day.
You should expect some damage to your rental car. You might drive for years here in the States and never receive a single dent. While in Ireland, you aren’t in Kansas anymore. Even though you try to be responsible and cautious, it’s likely you will incur some damage. That’s where your “walk away” insurance pays off.
For inexperienced Americans, allow me to say driving across Ireland isn’t easy but it is manageable. I highly recommend it. Would I do it again? Absolutely, yes. In fact, we’re heading back to Ireland in 2015 and can’t wait to get there!
ERIN GO BRAGH!