I’ve been driving in Ireland for over a decade. It was only during my last trip to Ireland that I was told, “Americans don’t drive in Ireland. I think they are terrified.”
This was told to me by a school teacher who lives in the Slieve Bloom Mountains as she shared a story about a visit from her California cousins. We had met her the night before at the Slieve Bloom Storytelling Festival and she had invited us to her school. It was one of those tiny parish schools that you pass and wonder about – but that is a story for another day.
The school was located along the R440, between Kinnitty and Mountrath. As it wound its way up the mountain, the road narrowed, at times barely wide enough for our people mover (a small version of a mini-van). The tree covered mountains blocked the sun’s October rays early, and we were soon in complete darkness. On a narrow, winding mountain road.
Maybe the teacher’s American cousins were right to be a bit terrified.
We made our way, cautiously, along the road, thankful we could see headlights cut through the trees as warning of an approaching car. Pulling as far left as possible and slowing to a crawl, the car would hurtle past us, the driver likely shaking his head and muttering something about tourists.
I truly believe self-drive Ireland vacations give you a view of the country you won’t get on a bus tour, along with the opportunity to follow the roads less traveled, stopping as you wish and experiencing an Ireland off the tourist track.
But there are a few things you should know.
Of course, everyone knows that in Ireland you drive on the left – which also means that you look right, then left, then right again, before pulling out of a parking lot or into a roundabout. Exactly the opposite of what you are used to. And you may give the appearance of a bobble-head as you look left, remember you need to look right, look left again, and then right again, before actually pulling into the street.
If you can drive a manual transmission car, do. There’s definitely a learning curve shifting with your left hand, but the foot pedals are the same. There’s also that small benefit of saving roughly $40-$55 a day by renting a manual car versus an automatic.
And about those roundabouts. I know it is very tempting to just stay in the outer lane of the circle, even if your exit is the last one. But be brave – the outer lane is for exiting traffic. And often, you can exit from the inner lane, as well. Really.
If you do find yourself off the tourist track and on a fabulous narrow road, it’s very likely you’ll meet another vehicle. The rule of thumb is that the smaller vehicle backs up to a wider spot in the road, allowing the larger vehicle to pass. So pay attention to the road you have traveled.
Not many people realize that Ireland only switched to kilometers about a decade ago. Which is why you will still hear people tell you distances in miles. To make things a bit more confusing, Northern Ireland still uses miles. Often you’ll see a sign warning you of this fact, but just be aware that any speed limit sign under 60 is likely in mph, not kph. Because no one wants to be behind you if you are traveling 35 kph – about 20 mph.
From navigating the car insurance options to navigating the roads, a driving tour of Ireland is an adventure in itself: a map spread before you, each road tempting in its journey, with magical possibilities waiting to be discovered.