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Driving in Ireland: Sure You Can ... But Should You?

So you’ve decided to plan a trip to Ireland. You won’t regret it, it will possibly be the best vacation of your life. The next big question that arises after you learn that the Irish drive on the other side of the road is: “Can I drive?”.

The short answer is “sure you can drive”. But, just like the admonishment given to teenagers everywhere … Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. First, let’s be clear about the “can”. Yes, you may rent a car. There are a few gotchas, so checkout these blogs from Infinite Ireland to understand the insurance and rental gotchas. If you are coming from North America, your driver’s license is valid in Ireland. In general, you will find renting a car to be expensive after you take into account the cost of insurance, adding an extra driver, up charge for automatic transmission, tolls, petrol, and parking, but you probably won’t find it prohibitively expensive.

So, let’s talk about the “Should I drive” question. In general, I recommend that unless you have lived for a period of time in a country that drives on the left, then you probably shouldn’t drive on your first visit to Ireland. I base this on three general areas:

  1. Skills

  2. Road Conditions

  3. Passenger Teamwork and Comfort

Some drivers who haven’t previously driven on the left, are very skilled drivers. They may have driven many different types of vehicles with a clean driving record. Some may even have been accomplished amateur race car drivers. I would suggest that this is only one-third of the equation. The other two-thirds are the road conditions and the passenger(s).

The skills required to drive on the “other” side of the road (the side everyone else is driving on is always the “right” side 😉) are only part of the equation. Ireland has very different and challenging road conditions from North America. If you only stay on the Motorways (Interstate), this would not be a factor, but you probably want to see the “real” Ireland where the roads are so narrow they don’t bother with a center line, let alone lines along the side of the road … the rock walls give you a good indication of the edge of the road. 😓 (See my blog from January 2012 -- things haven’t changed much in 5+ years.)

A Typical Rural Irish Road

Ireland was also previously part of the British Empire, so they have adopted the “round-about” (or traffic circle or rotary or …) style of junctions. Most people in North America don’t know the proper rules for traversing a round-about. The Irish are usually very courteous and forgiving drivers, but they do tend to honk at “eejits” who don’t enter and exit the roundabouts correctly.

I have one Irish friend who made the light-hearted statement that “the Romans never conquered Ireland, so they never figured out what a good road looks like”. This statement is a little harsh as almost all the roads have evolved from walking and cart paths over the centuries. Because of this evolution, there are almost no 90 degree turns in Ireland, possibly the reason for the roundabouts. The roundabouts plus the road system not only require extra driving skills, but a whole new level of cooperation between the driver and the navigator.

The required team work between the passenger and the driver looks something like this: Google shouts out "enter the roundabout and take the second exit" ... a typical navigation directive from Google. The second exit can mean progressing straight through the roundabout (exiting at the 12 o’clock position), exiting the roundabout at about the 3 o’clock position or exiting the roundabout at the 10 o’clock position. The clock position of the exit affects the entry lane for the roundabout, if it is a two-lane roundabout … You get the idea.

Check out what the Irish RSA (Road Safety Authority) has to say regarding roundabouts. Of course there are no other cars in the video and the driving lanes shown are larger than average😉.

Also because of the roads and your unfamiliarity with the city names, you will not be able to ad-lib directions between cities, unless they are major cities along the motorway like Galway and Dublin … and then you have the first and last few miles. Additionally, cell coverage is not great in rural areas (similar to North America), so you will need to download maps to your phone before starting on your drive.

A "Typical gate" for a medieval town

The Toyota Yaris is a very popular car in

Ireland and is only slightly smaller than average

The first & last few miles may be harder than you think. You’re probably visiting Ireland to see the picturesque scenery and the medieval towns. Picturesque scenery means a lot of twisty turns along the coast and through the countryside. Medieval towns mean lots of very narrow and one-way roads. As an example, to drive to my local butcher shop in Athenry requires 10 turns … and then there is no parking. The walk to the butcher shop is about 1/2 mile.

So if you still think you’re up for driving in Ireland, consider that possibly the hardest part about driving in Ireland is ... being the passenger. The main rule in our car is “no involuntary noises”. NO loud sucking sounds; NO pounding an imaginary peddle on the floor; no yelling “WATCH OUT!”; …. This is easier said than done (I know this from experience). After six years, we still find that certain road situations make this rule hard to keep. The mirrors are in the “wrong place” (and tilted incorrectly); there is a rock wall 4-8 feet from your head; and humongous busses headed your way requiring the driver to find a pullout along the side of the road …. possibly by backing up. All these situations and more make this a challenge to not express consternation. Depending on the driver, expressing consternation can be a real strain on the relationship between the driver and the navigator.

We have met many tourist couple friends and pub acquaintances where the driver was having a great time driving in Ireland. They were really invigorated by the challenge and the thrill of the minor dangers they were encountering along the way. The passenger was another thing. It was very easy to imagine the passenger curled up in a fetal position in the front passenger seat…. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly. I’m sure many relationships have been cemented or busted as a result of driving in Ireland.

Despite what I have said in this blog, many couples and groups of friends have driven together while touring in Ireland and have had a great time. It is hard not to have a great time in Ireland! What I’m suggesting is consider ALL of the factors that go into making the decision to drive: Cost, the driver’s skills and personality type, AND the passenger’s personality type and comfort.

There are many alternatives to driving in Ireland, but if you still need to have your “freedom” and “control” (as an American I understand this), then consider some hybrid approaches:

  1. Take mass/public transit on the day you arrive, the day you are suffering from jet lag. You can get to most places in Ireland by public transport from the airports. This can be done by taxi, train and/or bus. Check out the blogs in the "related blogs" area

  2. Take mass transit to a few “hub cities”, visit the city (usually by foot and taxi) and then rent a car for a day or two to see the surrounding country side. You can rent a car in most larger Irish cities (Galway, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, ...)

  3. Hire a taxi for a half day to visit the surrounding country side.

  4. Take a tour like those offered by Jet Lag Jack Tours where you don’t have to worry about transport.

Have you driven in Ireland? Have you taken public transit? What did you think of the taxi service? Have you ever driven in a multi-story car park (parking garage) in Ireland?

Have you experienced any of the above or do you have another experience you’d like to share? Comment and let us know!!!

See You In The Pub!

JetLag Jack

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