Or How to Enjoy the Land of Your Ancestors Without Meeting Them
By my estimation I’ve driven about half a million miles throughout North America without a major accident or speeding ticket, yet the idea of driving in Ireland filled me with trepidation. I agreed to doing so early on in the vacation planning phase with the Wife figuring how bad could it be tooling around a country of four and a half million the size of Indiana? That was before I learned that my credit card would not insure my rental there because of the number of insurance claims in Ireland. The travel guide Frommer’s rates Ireland as the second most dangerous country to drive in Europe, trailing only Greece probably because Greece have fewer sheep.
The Irish road system has an international character. The vistas are pure Irish and one could easily pull over every few feet to see something so beautiful it will bring tears to your eyes. Do so and you’ll be run over by the Irish who drive like Italians on roads built by drunk Greeks following traffic rules dreamed up by the same country that brought you cricket, Hugh Grant and English spelling.
The best advice I found can be viewed here. The only thing I might disagree with is the comparison between Dublin and New York City. I’ve driven in New York City, and there is nothing quite like it. Dublin driving is challenging and I wouldn’t recommend driving around it initially, but after a few days of driving in the countryside and small towns it should be okay. Also, be sure to educate yourself on insurance including CDW, and super CDW insurance. American credit cards will not insure your rental so you will be on your own when it comes to insuring your vehicle. In my case I ended up buying all the insurance offered by the rental company and then going with a super CDW through a third party. Insurance ate up about 2/3rds of my total rental bill, but the peace of mind is worth it because your mind will be too busy keeping your car on the road.
1. Rent the smallest car you can tolerate. Here in the states I drive compact, fuel efficient vehicles except when I’m renting – then I get the biggest, most comfortable boat I can reasonably afford. If you are like me, forget it in Ireland and get the closest thing to a skateboard you can stomach. It’s certainly not to save money: as mentioned above the rental fees are miniscule compared to the cost of insurance, it’s because you will find yourself doing 60 mph on what is known here in the US as a bikepath, with an ancient stone wall covered with sharp rocks on one side of you and five hundred feet of beautiful but life-ending air on the other.
2. Learn how to drive a manual transmission before you visit. This will be a challenge due to the disappearance of the stick transmission here, but try to borrow a friend’s car or even rent one for a day to learn. While uncommon here, renting an automatic will easily double the cost of your car rental. The upside? Better gas mileage. The downside? Learning a skill that you’ll probably never use again unless you buy a high performance sports car. People say learning to drive a stick is easy, and it is with some practice. The problem in Ireland is your busy learning to navigate winding streets as narrow as the hallway to your bathroom, in a car where the steering wheel is on the right and the stick shift is on the left, on the left side of the road, with unfamiliar street signs, lane markers and of course, wandering sheep. More on those later.
3. Ask for a diesel. Diesel is cheaper in Ireland than unleaded and provides better gas mileage. I got 38 mpg combined driving a diesel Ford Focus with manual transmission. At $8/gal, the pain at the pump was the same as here when I fill up my SUV that gets 19 mpg combined at $4/gal. Just remember at the filling station over there the black (diesel) pump is your friend. Fill up your diesel with unleaded and be prepared for a big tank cleaning bill. All that insurance you buy does not cover idiocy.
4. With a friend’s help, using a piece of hotel soap pull the left side of the car so that the passenger mirror just hangs over the line. Be alert behind the wheel, sitting up as if you were driving and note where the line is on the left fender or hood, then have your colleague mark that spot on the hood. Adjust your passenger mirror so that the line is clear there, then move the car onto the right line and do the same on the driver’s side of the car. Those marks will help you stay in your lane, and you know when you are approaching them that bad things such as bills from smashed mirrors and scraped paint appearing on your credit card are in your future.
5. Drive with a navigator, preferably a living, breathing one although a GPS will do in a pinch. A second set of eyes will help see signs you miss and help you negotiate the chain of roundabouts that will set an American’s hair on end. You thought the occasional roundabout our jug handle in New Jersey was bad, imagine three of the things one after the other filled with Irish driving like New Jerseans minus the crude epithets and hand gestures. A GPS unit will not warn you that you are about to enter the roundabout exit the wrong way or sideswipe the thistle covered rock wall on your left. The Wife, who bless her heart could get lost in a walk-in closet, by the end of our trip navigated us through rush hour clogged Dublin streets after the piss-poor directions given to us by the Slovakian front desk clerk failed, managing to not only get us to the airport on time but also avoiding the M50 in the process. After that performance I won’t be trading her in for a GPS unit anytime soon.
If you don’t have a navigator, either bring a GPS unit with you or take the hit and add one to the rental. If the former, make sure it has an updated map of Ireland. Some units do not. Either way I do not recommend navigating Ireland on your own. The signs are small and from an American perspective oddly placed, and occasionally missing altogether. A wrong turn is often difficult to determine until after you are dozens of kilometers down the road, resulting in wasting $8/gal fuel and time.
If all else fails, and it will, stop and ask the locals. I did this three times on our trip and each time the locals were friendly, eager to help, and more importantly accurate. Do not hesitate to do this if you find yourself lost, just be prepared to pay with a brief chat about how your trip is going so far.
6. Signage – Signs are often small and placed using a logic that differs from the US. English appears often, though not always, below the Gaelic, even though Gaelic isn’t spoken by many people aside from a few words that are useful in a pub brawl. The biggest difficulty I found with the signage was the time wasted skipping the Gaelic to read the English, by which time I had to switch my gaze back to the road. Navigators are best for this.
7. Road hazards. There were times that I felt that I was driving in a video game. Roads are often flanked by walls and hedges on both sides. The Ford’s headlights were focused too near to the front end of the car so that I had to drive with the high beams on as much as possible until oncoming traffic appeared and I was forced to turn them off then watch the lines to stay in my lane. It rains a lot in Ireland so the streets are often wet, but it doesn’t appear to slow down the Irish. People often walk pushing strollers or bicycle on the road, making focused driving critical. While I was there two children were killed when their stroller was hit by a car. The worst was a bicyclist dressed in black at night in the rain on a narrow rural road. Then there are these things which are everywhere outside of the big cities:
Ireland is famous for its sheep, and they will appear in your way at some point in your journey. Usually they will move out of the way, but only after they realize you are there. Amazingly enough I only saw a single dead sheep as road kill, and very little road kill overall with foxes and cats predominating versus the possums, raccoons and squirrels here in the South. I see more road kill on my way to drop the Kid off at school than I did the 600+ miles I drove in Ireland.
These were some of the tactics I learned while driving in Ireland that I thought I’d share if for the only reason that driving there intimidated me to the point that if I could have I would have chickened out and taken a bus tour. But I grew some stones and did it, maybe not with as much cool and aplomb as I might have liked but did it nonetheless, and I am glad I did. Ireland is an incredible place, and after all the places I’ve been in the world it’s the first where I felt truly comfortable outside of the US. It’s true there is a family connection as there are for many Americans, Australians and Canadians, but there was more to it. It has moved me in a way that I haven’t felt before, and while it was happening I knew it would take time for me to fully comprehend. I suppose it may be similar to the Jews who visit Israel for the first time, or perhaps a Muslim who makes his first hajj, but there is something truly magical about the place – and it has nothing to do with leprechauns, Guinness, or U2. It’s more sublime than that, undefinable. I mentioned it to my sister and she immediately understood. She felt the same way about the place and even though she hadn’t been there in 30+ years she spoke as if she had been there yesterday. I’m still feeling it, wondering what it means but happy that after all the far away places I’ve been to I’ve finally made to some place close to home – in more ways than one I suppose.
Don’t let the driving scare you from visiting this country and taking it in the way it is meant to be: person to person without tour guides, strict itineraries or coaches. I spent a total of 8 days there and when I started I was terrified of driving. Now it’s a non-issue and I’m already plotting my return to see things I missed on this trip, and to chase sheep in a rented Fiat 500. Hopefully these tips will come in useful as you explore the gem of Ireland and the Irish people who make it shine brightly in the heart.