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Driving in Ireland Part One
by Russ Haggerty
This is the story of our first trip to Ireland. More than just a story; it has a purpose. This is a, not very well, camouflaged guide to driving a rental car in Ireland. I say rental car because otherwise you already know all about it or you brought your own over on the ferry and you may have problems I can't help you with. The story helps explain why I was driving in the first place and sometimes explains how. Besides, it's not as boring this way. So...
My wife Bridget is 100% Irish and for many years she has dreamed of going 'home'. When I turned 50 (sigh) she arranged a surprise birthday party - I didn't forgive her and plotted my revenge. She was adamant, "you won't do that to me; when it's my turn I'll be out of the country". OK, I thought, I'll get her 'out of the country'. I secretly planned to take her to Ireland and surprise her there.
The details were troublesome enough; what I never considered was Irish travel. I started with "wouldn't it be pleasant to use trains?" Well, they don't seem to go where we wanted to go. Okay, how about just renting a car? And off we went...
My first surprise for Bridget was to have us met at Shannon Airport by her brother Terry from England and her closest friend from the States - Jane. Jane arrived the day before us. When Jane rented her car, there were no automatics available. Yes, she had reserved an automatic but everyone else had reserved an automatic as well. Notice that and plan ahead to improve your odds. You may even have to assume a day or so without a car until an automatic becomes available. So, Jane, with no time to spare, had to drive a stick which she hadn't done in years. She then had to contend with driving on the left (sitting on the right) and - 'roundabouts'.
Roundabouts are a brilliant solution to the problem of intersecting roads. A largish circular mound, with multiple roadways entering from the perimeter. No traffic lights. No police. You enter the circle and drive around (and around and around) until you find the other road you want - then you ..um exit. There are customs involved. Whether they are actually laws or not, I never found out. The first and foremost is: the car on the right has the right of way. This means the vehicle on the roundabout (going around in the circle) has the right of way. The only other custom I noticed was: if you are going to pass more than one other road off the roundabout, move to the inside lane. Yes, they are often two lanes (even three).
A little aside here. Oddly the term Roundabout was coined by an American. It was invented by Logan Pearsall Smith, who was one of the members in the 1920's of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English. This panel had the job of deciding questions of pronunciation, usage and even vocabulary for the BBC. Before Smith, traffic circles in Britain were called gyratory circuses. Bill Bryson - from 'The Mother Tongue'.
Back to Jane.
She's a very capable woman and made a two hour trip to Galway city to meet up with Terry at the B & B without mishap (and only a few nerve endings exposed). She then drove back the next day to meet us. By then, she was somewhat more confident but she did lose the offside mirror enroute. She was stopped behind a parked truck. In the process of pulling out to go around, she misjudged the distance and clipped the truck. The glass popped out with a bang and woke up Terry; who was dozing. More about judging your offside later on.
The surprise worked perfectly and Bridget was in joyous shock. Then Jane drove us back to the B & B in Galway. The main (National) roads are designated 'N - some number' and the signs to wherever you're going are usually clear and obvious. The speed limits are marked and if not, the national speed limit is 60 miles per hour. I can't say the Irish pay much attention. They tend to drive as fast as they can. They have a seatbelt law - just like us you must wear your seatbelt. Oh, one other point, our children are grown and gone and I didn't want them along anyway. However, if you are traveling with kids under twelve, they cannot be in the front seat. Good idea, that.
The original intent was for Jane to drive us to Shannon Airport to get our rental car. The problem was Jane not wanting to drive to Shannon (2 hours, for her) or anywhere else she could avoid.
So we stopped at a car rental office in Galway city to see if we could rent a car there without a drop-off charge. We could. We had been told we couldn't before we left. Another point to note, if you can't get your automatic or whatever car you requested. Take a taxi or bus or whatever you can find and wait. Then try the rental office nearest you, It may all be easier anyway. I cancelled the car at Shannon and arranged to rent a 4-door automatic in Galway (which turned out to be cheaper than the one at the airport).
I drove everyone back out of the city (we had come in by bus) and we stopped at a pub to have something to eat. As I got out of the car, I picked up a whiff of something hot. I'd left the handbrake on the whole way. I hadn't noticed because it didn't slow the car down at all. I must believe the former drivers had done the same.
This is something to check when you rent. There may be spots on a steep hill where the hand brake won't help at all. Before you leave the rental office, put the hand brake on and see if the car will move; it's not supposed to.
Alright, we had both cars at the B&B that afternoon. I should explain, I did have an advantage. I grew up in England and learned to drive there. That meant I knew what it was like to drive on the left. It was like riding the proverbial bicycle, the button that snapped me back to the old days in England was, of course, roundabouts. I used to be so comfortable with roundabouts I didn't even have to slow down, (um .. much). The Irish roundabouts were fun for me and I was almost driving like a native in a couple of hours - only much slower.
Now, for all Americans who have never driven on the left. You must burn two life-saving truths into your brain. First, always look to the right; that's where the traffic is coming from. And second, when you turn onto (or off-of) any road, you are turning into the left lane. I know, that's obvious - no, it's not. The most common mistake is turning right into the right lane.
The next morning we split up. Jane and Terry went off to Cork and Bridget and I went to the cemetery to find her grandmother's grave. Alright, I thought I was a fully capable driver and Bridget had blind confidence. So, Bridget insisted we drive to see the Cliffs of Moher. All well and good but we were still jet lagged and it was 5:30p.m.
Between major cities (say, Shannon Airport near Limerick and Galway City) the roads are mostly good - smooth and wide. They are never consistent however. You can expect a variation from narrow two-lane blacktop to wide and motorway-ish. Many of the good roads are four-lane, but you should only use the center two. The other two lanes (on the outer edges) are for very slow vehicles. The rules of the road say you should always stay in the slow lane to allow faster drivers to pass - rubbish. The Irish don't do that unless their car is in trouble. In most cases, you couldn't stay in the slow lane for more than a couple of minutes; your path would be more like a slalom.
Be prepared. I never drove anywhere without seeing, or more painfully - following, a massive tractor grinding along at 20 miles an hour. They are always just around the next bend (out if sight) and you're going 50.
Did I say the roads were clearly marked? Well, yes on the nice bits. On the narrow lanes, however, the signs are usually obscured by very attractive greenery. I learned to scan the brush for a hint of metal signpost.
Onward to the Burren. The Burren? Well yes, if you plan your route or don't know where you're going, you can go through the Burren on the way to the cliffs of Moher.
The Burren is a rugged geological formation that has almost no soil - just rocks. The rocks are in a strange series of patterns (like an Irish sweater). We were coming from the north and could drive through the Burren to reach the Cliffs of Moher, so of course, that was mandatory. This was a trip actually farther away than the airport and Jane had taken 2 hours to do that. I started to argue with Bridget but decided to go anyway (it was her trip). So I gritted my teeth.
After driving south back the way we had come, we turned off the 'main' roads and entered the 2-lane macadam's that lead to the Burren. Now, you must know where your car is down to a few inches or your insurance may be paying for a new rental car. As I entered narrowing roads between the walls, I continuously asked Bridget how much room I had on her side. Remember dozing Terry?
If you have a passenger, don't let them doze - you'll want the feedback. If you don't have a passenger, look at the center of your hood (bonnet), the spot where an ornament would be if it had one. If the edge of road looks like its on that mark, you're alright. If it's to the left of it, you have more room on the left. If it's on the right of it you're probably too close to the left. I'll harp on this again.
The stretch to the Burren is on the coast and occasionally walled-in on both sides. It looks like hedges, but if you look closely you can see the stone behind the soft surface. The road appears to be as narrow as anyone's driveway with a line drawn down the center; giving both lanes equally insufficient room. The edges are crumbling and have an occasional pothole that can eat a wheel.
To make it all the more entertaining, there are tour buses the size of earth-moving equipment and the drivers don't seem to care if they scratch their sides. These tour buses take the tours clockwise around the peninsulas. We were told to go counterclockwise to avoid being slowed down. Its up to you, but I would rather have the tour bus monsters in front of me than beside me. So, I went clockwise right along with them. There weren't that many and they did - not - drive slowly. I made it to the cliffs in 2 hours.
The cliffs are beautiful and very windy. They say the wind is so strong you can lean against it. Well, the wind is from the sea, depending on where you are and anyone who leans against the wind on the edge of those cliffs should be tested. We have heard of too many people falling (with, yes, fatal results).
The trip back was smooth enough. The only aggravation I remember was dusk and the headlights of oncoming cars. It took me a while to get used to averting my eyes in the right (uh, left) direction.
If you can avoid driving at night, it is easier on the eyes.
The next day was the 'figure eight' through Connemara; this is the tried and true route to see the most in the least miles. Which is, of course, the American way. It's called the figure eight because it looks that way, sort of, on a map. We went northwest from Galway city towards Maam Cross. On the way we, absolutely, had to stop at the ancestral castle of the O'Flaherty's. The road was very good; butter smooth blacktop. I was mesmerized. So much so, I missed the sign to the castle and we had to turn back. The O'Flaherty's dominated Connemara in days long past and they had lots of castles. Oh well, we found one anyway. We took the tour and Bridget asked for her castle back (yes, née O'Flaherty). The bored ticket taker was pleasant but he wasn't giving it up.
Back on those wonderfully smooth, just short of wide, roads; after the Burren anything looked better. We drove straight out through the center of the peninsula.
Maam Cross is just about where you would stick a pin if you wanted to balance a cardboard cutout of Connemara. The country is magnificent. We drove in a wide shallow valley beside a river; the mountains on both sides of us. The valley was decorated with rocks and boulders and coated with a blanket of peat. Sheep wandered around and across the road and you had to be prepared to stop or veer. The custom is that if you hit one, you have to find the owner farmer and pay him for the sheep. Impossible. You would never be able to find the farm in a two-day forage. Oh, you would find farms, many I'm sure, but they wouldn't be the right one. I noticed some sheep were sprayed with dye. I assumed that would tell them apart or maybe which were for the pot. Animal lovers should not hold their breath, we never did see a dead or injured sheep. The sheep are not a breed I'm familiar with; they have short curled horns and black faces.
We were headed to Clifden, a fairly large village perched on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. We parked the car and strolled about. Bridget went to a post office to buy stamps (for the postcards) and I stood around, trying not to look like a tourist. A young girl was setting up stalls outside a shop; stocking the trays and talking to an old man wearing the required cap and tweeds. The odd thing was: she spoke only English and he spoke only Irish. I could almost follow the conversation from listening to her half. We stopped in a woolens shop and found out that the Aran Isle sweaters we wanted were brought in from Cork. So, we decided to wait until we got to the Blarney Woolen Mills (in Cork). We stopped in a pub and had lunch and a pint. Then we wandered about some more and decided to drive on.
The coastal roads presented a fork; the beach road and the sky road (yup - sky road). We chose the beach road and it was a pleasant view but it stopped at the boat club a couple of miles along - oh well. We back tracked and then took the sky road (there's a song here somewhere).
The sky road follows the top of the cliffs. The cliff edge is protected by a two foot high stone wall and the land edge by an equally rocky hillside. One lane. If you meet another car (sheep. horse, cow, bicycle, whatever), someone has to cower in a small crescent pull-off, if there is one - or- backup until there is. There was one occasion when I needed a pull-off and - there was one. For anyone interested in Chaos Theory (the theory is that there is no such thing as random, just unpredictable) - this road is a perfect study. Although, I think the pull-offs are created, ad hoc.
The sky road took us north and then east to the much better road across the top of Connemara. There were miles and miles of peat bogs and many walls where the peat had been cut. The peat stacks were teepee shaped piles of rectangular peat slabs. We picked up a couple of dutch girls hitchhiking (back packs, front packs, bottom packs). One had been in Ireland since last September and spoke English with an Irish accent; fascinating.
We stopped at Kylemore Abbey. No one should go to Ireland without seeing the Abbey. It caters very much to tourists, but it is quietly and tastefully done and the Abbey is magnificent. Sitting on a lake edge backed by a lush mountainside. The Abbey is still a Catholic girl's school. We knew we didn't have the time to go in on the tour; we were told we would have seen the girls in their uniforms. So what? Bridget went to a Catholic Girl's School; maybe she wanted to compare blazers.
We continued on to Cong (just inside County Mayo) and the rest of the sheep-choked countryside. The reason for the visit to Cong was Bridget's fondness for The Quiet Man. I don't really like John Wayne much but I admit I like him in The Quiet Man. Many of the local people were used in the film and during the filming they were told they were to have electric power installed. They were elated until they found out they had to pay for it. Then they decided they didn't need it. It looks pretty much as it did in the film. Cohan's pub, to our disappointment, wasn't a pub; it was a souvenir shop. We had a snack and a pint and realized we were out of time.
Cong was a departure from the figure eight so we had to backtrack. Back west and then a left turn and south through Maam Cross again. This starts us back to completing the bottom loop of the eight. As we headed for the bottom of the peninsula (and Galway Bay). We passed through a Gaeltacht; Irish speaking - only. The signs were only in Gaelic but you can figure them out.
It was bleak and barren. The only place in our entire trip that struck us as unpleasant. Maybe we were just tired. Late that night we wandered back, from the opposite direction, into Salt Hill and our B&B. We walked out to the pub and dinner.
I know this is about driving, but if you can, go to the pubs on foot. If the gardai (police) stop you driving drunk, your vacation could be over. Back to bed to collapse.
This was the day I dreaded. Bridget had arranged a lunch with her cousins in Dublin and we were booked into a bed & breakfast in Cork that same night. This meant I had to drive across the breadth of the country and then drive (even farther) down to the center of the south coast. All in the same day.
Before we left Galway, I stopped to top up with petrol. A tour company had said there were no 'rest rooms' in the petrol stations - wrong. Almost all of them had rest rooms and even little mini-marts. Just like the States. Anyway, I was talking to the attendant (no self-serve in Ireland that we came across) and asked him if he thought the weather would clear up. It was cloudy, grey and we'd had some sprinkles. "Well", he said, "the weather's vurry changeable this time of yarh. We get sum turrible starms and there's no shelter from here to Boston". I don't think he was quite right, the 'last parish before Brooklyn' is the Skellig Islands; but close enough. Now that I think about it, there's probably not much shelter on the Skelligs.
The Dublin road ( the Irish just call the main roads by where you're going; Dublin road, Cork road and so on) was a main road and overall, very good. Wait, there is a small wrinkle. Unless it is a true motorway, it's dotted with small villages. The average speed through these charming obstacles is 20. I think this is why the Irish drive so fast. They know that the villages will bring their average speed down to something like 50 miles per hour.
Yes, we did get to Dublin - in 2 hours 25 minutes, but it then took 30 minutes to get to O'Connell Street. This was a Saturday. Do not expect Saturday to be a good day for travel; it's market day. That's right, more traffic than any rush hour. You're better off driving during the week.
We had originally planned on meeting the cousins at the Burlington House but the car rental agent had suggested we change to the Royal Dublin Hotel since they had a rental office and I could park for free.
I stopped outside the hotel and Bridget ran in to ask where their garage was so I could park. She came running out and we drove around the end of the block to an alley behind the hotel. The garage was underneath and the garage was new when G.B. Shaw was a boy. I had a few inches either side down into the cement pillared tomb. I would guess it parked twenty cars - if they were placed by helicopter. I managed, (hardly any other cars-probably smart enough not to try) and we went up into the hotel.
One of Bridget's cousins had brought her husband, thank God. He and I could have a conversation that didn't involve historic relations. He volunteered to drive down to the Burlington Hotel and pick up some other cousins. I went along.
He was parked (as only a Dubliner could) in an alley behind Bewley's Coffee Shop at the other end of O'Connell Street. We walked down and stopped so I could buy some maps. Then we walked on, across O'Connell Bridge and turned into the coffee house. The coffee smelled so good I wish we'd stopped.
Out the back door to an alley and his car. Michael (Michael McCarthy), then took a path across town that, from above, would look something like the route of a pinball as it bounces its way down after 'tilt'. At the Burlington carpark we drove past the cousins just walking in after being dropped off. We made hurried introductions and returned in a variation of the pinball path - I doubt if you can actually reverse the route due to one-way streets.
The cousins and I got out and Michael left to find another mouse hole to park his car.
Michael considers himself a modern 'Euro-Irishman' but he still has the wonderful inverted view of all Irish. I asked him whether I should take the N-8 or the N-6 to Cork. He looked at me and then said "just take the Cork Road". I said, what's the N - number routing for? and he said, "that's for tourists".
Ah, "The Quiet Man". No Irish-American who's seen that film can ever get away from the thought of visiting the homeland. The dialog is superb and the comedy is irresistible. At the very start of the film, John Wayne is asking how to get to Innisfree. The train engineer points to a sign post and says, "you see that road there, well don't take that one, it'll do you no good". We all laugh. Ready?
The wonder of the Irish is their inversion - that line is an accurate portrayal of what to expect.
On the way out of Dublin we ran to the end of the motorway. I did not see a turn-off of any kind. The motorway came to a roundabout that had five choices, none of which was a continuation. I picked one at random and we pulled into a residential street. I saw a man walking so we pulled into a driveway. He was well dressed, suit and tie, and I counted on directions.
"You see that white van just there? - well don't follow him. And you see those cars at the light - she's on that side -she'll see it well. They're going over that bridge - well don't go over the bridge. You'll see the signs for Cork and the south." (this to Bridget) " you're on that side - look for the south -look for the south". I decided that if you ask directions, just subtract everything they say from the possibilities and follow whatever is left.
We launched ourselves into the stream of cars and somehow stumbled on the missing signpost and the motorway to Cork. The motorways are excellent but be prepared for the Dublin young. They were passing me and I vow they were going 90 to 100 miles an hour. Even so, it was a very easy drive. The countryside was pretty and I didn't see a single sheep (on the road, anyway).
Somewhere along in here, about halfway, we stopped for petrol. We'd passed major road construction with signs describing the work as the Bally
something bypass. They're trying to update the highway systems to help along through traffic. We were chatting to the owner and Bridget asked "what do you think about all the new road work?". "Doesn't matter to me, I've sold - I'm going fishing". He seemed to be very happy about it all. That seems a good example of the Irish vs. American attitude.
We got into Cork about nine, twilight. If it hadn't been a sunny day, I would have been in the dark. Well, lack of light, I was in the dark in many other ways already. Coming from the Northeast and trying to find the bed & breakfast on the opposite side of the city (and the rivers) on the southwest made me apprehensive. There was a fair amount of traffic and the roads had clearly evolved over time. I kept turning and driving in whatever direction looked like it would get me across the rivers and went generally to the right and, sort of, ahead.
At one point I was driving up a steep one lane - um - lane with shops and pubs and cars parked on both sides up on the footpath. Another good example of courtesy, no two cars were directly opposite each other. A slalom, yes, but passable.
Sunday and I vowed I would not drive anywhere. I recommend a pre-planned day when you don't even get into the car - it's good for the soul (and the seat). Well, in my case it didn't work. Her majesty insisted we go to Blarney. Jane and Terry had arrived at our same B & B the night before. Jane wanted to kiss the Blarney stone and Bridget wanted to buy everything they sell at the woolen mills and see the castle. So, I drove.
If you can, get a map of any city where you might spend time. They sell city maps that are very good and well worth the trouble. After all, there aren't that many cities anyway. The Blarney Woolen Mills - aren't. It's a very large shopping mall; teeming with people who are not Irish. It's at the very foot of Blarney Castle (remember the Blarney Stone?).
Tourists go up the stone steps to kiss the stone. It takes forever and the steps are so steep you're kissing the steps all the way to the top. I would have called it done and left, but you can't go back. There are 37 Germans in line behind you. If you have the stamina and you're not afraid of heights, do go kiss the Blarney Stone. Otherwise, at least, visit the woolen mills. The prices are good and it's fun. I found a very nice tweed jacket.
On the way back from Blarney I missed a turn and went across the north of the city. When I got turned around and came back I was in the midst of a major traffic snarl. What? In Ireland? Yup, there was a soccer game that night, uh- no, I take it back I think it was a hurling match. If you can find a schedule of hurling matches, stay home on those days. If you want to see the match, wear padded clothing and walk. The Irish take their Hurling vurrry seriously.
As soon as we returned to the B & B I went on strike. No more driving today. Jane and Bridget wanted to see FitzGerald Park and Terry wanted a pint. We compromised, Jane and Bridget went off to see the park and Terry and I went to the Crow's Nest pub.
When the ladies returned, we had something to eat and some more pints. Next to our table were four girls. Somehow, Bridget began to wax nostalgic about her days at the Ursuline Convent school and then waned trying to remember the Hail Mary. A pub can do these things. The adjacent girls laughed. They, we now know, were celebrating their graduation from - the Ursuline. We pushed the tables together and all cheerily recited the Hail Mary. There was never a more happy recitation. Bridget and the girls compared memories of the nuns. The nuns received a good natured drubbing.
One of the girls was a fluent Irish language speaker, but she pointed out that she never used it. Even in the Gaeltacht's? No, because the native speaker's were never satisfied with her pronunciation. Since every Gaeltacht has different pronunciation, you couldn't win. Did I mention the Crow's Nest was next door to our B & B? Good thing too.
We left Cork going southwest to continue along the south coast to a little spot called Glengarriff. Our first stop was Kinsale, just south of Cork, on the water. The Today Show was there and we could see why. The village is fairly large and has some plush hotels. There are swans in the harbour and pleasure boats, not just fishing vessels. The village car park was interesting. You pull in and there are no attendants. You find a shop (stationer's, usually) and buy a parking pass. This pass has times printed on it and you punch it with a sharp something (I used my car keys). Then you hang this sheet of paper over the top edge of the side window and close the window to hold it in place. New to me, but easy enough. It has the instructions printed on the pass.
After a stroll around and lunch, onto the coast road. Time was precious; the B&B's have a common convention about checking in. If you don't call and let them know you'll be arriving after six o'clock, they can give away your room. Even if you have prepaid reservations. I recommend you make a note of that. The south west coast is actually subtropical. The gulf stream reaches across the Atlantic and bumps into Ireland. It is lush and of course, beautiful. You become slightly jaded after a few days. All the roads have many places to pull off, enjoy the view and take pictures to prove you weren't lying. After a while I would ask Bridget if she wanted to stop and take a picture and she'd say "no we'll get the next one". I'll admit when we got back home, we often had trouble figuring out where some of the photographs were taken; it all started to look alike.
Rolling along through Clonakilty, Skibereen and around the curve of Bantry Bay we reached Glengarriff before six o'clock.
When you drive in Ireland the distances are usually in kilometers. The arithmetic you use to convert to miles is simple, divide the kilometers by three and multiply the result by two. To avoid this nuisance, don't bother. Make the assumption that the number of kilometers is actually miles. Why? Because, the roads wind and the obstacles slow you down and the time you think it will take works out about right. It worked for me.
Glengarriff is a small village. That said, it has more than one hotel and more than two pubs and numerous little shops. The reason is a little island off the coast called Garinish Island. This island is devoted to a beautiful subtropical garden called Ilnacullin. Bridget insisted we go look, which is why we were there. It took a little time to find our B&B.
After check-in and unload it was time to go walk about and, of course, stop at a pub. What Bridget didn't know was this was the place for my nefarious surprise birthday party. Six of our friends from the States had arranged to secretly meet me and surprise her the next night.
We strolled past the ticket booth for Ilnacullin and were shouted at to come take the ferry. I said to Bridget we'll do it tomorrow. One of the ferrymen said, "you've only 'til October"(this was May). You can get very fond of the Irish.
My plan was to arrange as much as possible for the next day to keep Bridget busy until the surprise. I knew there would be some timing glitch and I wanted to be sure we were in the village all day. Besides, that would give me a whole day without driving. This would not be easy. Bridget wanted to drive around the 'Ring of Kerry'; that would take the entire day and into the dark. The rest of the day was spent having dinner and listening to live Irish music in a pub called Johnny Barry's.
More to come...and more about driving in part 2
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Tue, Sep 12, 2017
The Galway Hooker
This unique vessel, with its distinctive curved lines and bright red sails, originated in the village of Claddagh. During the 19th century, hookers supported a significant fishing industry and also carried goods, livestock and fuel. Seán Rainey is remembered for building the last of the original boats, the Truelight, for Martin Oliver who was to become the last king of the Claddagh; as king, he was entitled to white sails on his boat. Since the mid seventies, many of the old sailing craft which were on the verge of extinction have been lovingly restored and new ones have been built. During the summer months they can be seen at festivals such a Cruinniú na mBád - the Gathering of the Boats - in Kinvara.
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