Driving in Ireland is a travel experience which can be described as anything from a rewarding adventure to a task which borders on pure madness. Here are some tips for driving in Ireland which will hopefully help make your Ireland experience easier and safer.
Republic v Northern: The island of Ireland is divided into two political entities with two different sets of traffic laws. Northern Ireland is part of the UK but here I will focus on navigating the Republic of Ireland. First of all, just a few differences and similarities between the two countries which need to be addressed.
What side do we drive on in Ireland: Good news is both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland drive on the left-hand side of the road…but probably bad news if you’re accustomed to driving on the right. As there is no physical border between the two countries the best way of knowing that you have crossed from one to the other is by looking at the road signs.
Road signs: Road signs in the Republic of Ireland are bilingual Irish/English or Irish only whilst in Northern Ireland signs are in English only.
Miles or kilometres: Speed limits in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometres whilst in Northern Ireland all is measured in miles. However, if you ask someone for directions on either side of the border distance will be given in miles. We in the Republic simply haven’t got our heads around the whole kilometre way of thinking yet – We changed from miles to kilometres in 2005. So to convert miles to kilometres divide by 5 and multiply your answer by 8. Just remember, 5 miles = 8 kilometres.
Check out my Planning a Trip to Ireland post for general travel information.
RENTING A CAR IN IRELAND
Cost of car rental: Car rental in the Republic of Ireland is expensive compared to other EU countries and you must be over the age of 25 with a full licence. I only know of one couple under the age of 25 who managed to rent a car but they paid approximately 200-300% of the regular price. Book a couple of months in advance for the best deals.
Car hire excess: The excess (i.e. deposit held against your credit card) is rarely below €1,000 and more often closer to €2,000. Make sure you have sufficient funds on your credit card to cover this. I strongly advise you to take out excess insurance to cover this in the event of an accident. In the event of encountering an animal on the road this article from The Journal.ie gives good advice.
What questions to ask the car rental company: What to do in the case of an accident or mechanical failure? Will the insurance be valid for an accident whilst driving during a red weather alert? Is it a petrol car or diesel car?
Type of car recommended: An economy (small) size car with an automatic transmission is ideal for first time renters unfamiliar with driving on the left-hand side of the road. An SUV is recommended for a lot of night driving.
Renting at Dublin Airport: The busiest road in Ireland is the M50, the Dublin ring-road motorway. If you’re renting your car at Dublin Airport this is the first road you’ll encounter so you’re in for a baptism of fire.
The M50 is the only road in the Republic of Ireland which has an electronic tolling system and it is located between Junction 6 (N3 Blanchardstown) and Junction 7 (N4 Lucan). The fee must be paid by 8pm on the day following the journey. Information on paying the toll can be found on the eFlow website or you can pay it at service stations as well.
Only rent a car for travel outside of Dublin. A rental car in Dublin is a hindrance rather than an advantage.
Narrow Roads: The sparse motorway infrastructure is excellent but roads in the scenic areas can be narrow with sharp bends. Some of these roads don’t have markings or safety barriers so care needs to be taken. Slea Head Drive and the Ring of Kerry are examples of beautiful drives with narrow parts.
On narrow roads, don’t necessarily assume two cars will be able to pass each other freely. Be prepared to stop or reverse. The Irish word for road is bóthar, translated as The way (thar) of the Cow (bó). Which means some roads originated with cows in mind, not cars.
Despite our vast building experience our road infrastructure falls short of expectation in some places. This adds to journey times making Ireland a deceptively big country to drive around.
Road-sign colours: Motorways have blue signs and are a signified with the letter M. For example, the M7 runs from Dublin to Limerick. N stands for National road which connect towns/counties and are signified by green signs. R and L roads are much smaller roads, signified by white signs and usually connect villages or small towns to each other. Brown signs indicate a place of historical/cultural interest.
Roundabouts: Roundabouts are excellent for managing traffic at busy junctions but you need your wits about you and be able to enter and exit quickly. In Ireland, yield to traffic coming from the right. Some roundabouts have an added layer of complexity in the form of pedestrian crossings. Check out this video from the Irish Road Safety Authority on how to use a roundabout.
By the way, the Red Cow is a large transport interchange of road and light rail on the outskirts of West Dublin. It started as a roundabout.
Driving at night: Driving in the dark in rural Ireland is not easy and best avoided. Road-markings are difficult to see, the ditch tends to blend with the road, and the raised lights of SUVs and vans will dazzle you.
Inclement weather: Yep, we get lots of it in Ireland with rain and wind the most prevalent. You may need to reduce your speed during heavy rain and high winds. Of course when it snows nothing moves. This is why the weather forecast will be an integral part of your trip planning. Heatwaves have been known to melt road tar so care must be taken when the weather is hot also.
Navigation: Navigating rural Ireland at times requires a skillset befitting an army commander. Firstly, strong wind can twist signposts and cause them to be turned the wrong way. Secondly, there may not be any signposts in existence to begin with. Finally, SatNav/GPS doesn’t always work well in rural Ireland, particularly for finding rural addresses so ask your destination/host for the co-ordinates. The most reliable information you will get is from asking a local. We love to talk so are more than willing to help.
Service Stations: Better known as Filling Stations or Petrol Stations (they sell diesel as well). Every town and village will have one and most open 7 days a week from early morning to late evening. Most will also sell freshly prepped food such as sandwiches and are great places to get coffee. You are expected to fill your own car and then pay inside or at a manned outdoor kiosk.
Driving in the Gaeltacht: Road signs in an Irish speaking area (Gaeltacht) pose an extra challenge – They are written in Irish only. Here’s a list of the most common signs and their translation into English:
Place-names are also written in Irish-only in Gaeltacht areas. This isn’t always reflected on rental company maps. For example, you will not find Ventry on a signpost in West Kerry. You will see plenty of signs for Ceann Trá, Ventry’s Irish translation. A bilingual list of the place-names will help enormously so ask your accommodation provider in advance if they can provide this.
I only know of one place in Ireland where the warning signs are in several languages – The Connor Pass on the Dingle Peninsula.
With sparse public transport in rural areas driving is the main mode of travel. Given the amount of driving we undertake on a daily basis we become familiar with every nook and cranny of our local roads, hence our tendency to drive fast. So pay attention to all of the below points.
Indicating: The worst habits of Irish drivers involves indicating. Some people indicate with their brake lights. If a person indicates left this does not mean they will turn left. In fact, they could turn right. Or drive straight ahead. Or stop. If a driver sticks their hand out the window they are drying their nail varnish.
L and N: I’m often asked what the L and N stickers are on cars. L is for learner and N is for new driver.
Pedestrians: Jaywalking is illegal within 50 metres of a pedestrian crossing but it’s a law which is regularly flouted. So watch out for jaywalkers.
Courtesy: There is nothing more infuriating than someone who refuses or cannot (or both) reverse their car to a gap which will allow both cars to pass. The unspoken rule is: whoever is closest to the nearest gap must reverse. If someone reverses for you then salute them – briefly put up your hand with the palm facing the other driver. Road courtesy is acknowledged with a salute.
Tractor factor: The unspoken rule above does not apply when you encounter agricultural equipment or a truck – You in the small rented car will have to stop/pull in towards the side/reverse or the road will be blocked for a while. Bear in mind that the agricultural harvesting season is from May to August, the months you’re most likely to visit Ireland.
Red Flag Alert: If you see a red flag on a ditch it means agricultural machinery is exiting at that point. It may not necessarily be a red flag but any item of red clothing. If it’s a red flag combined with another colour then you’ve had your first introduction to the local GAA club.
Rush Hour: We drive at our fastest between 8am – 9.30am and 5pm – 6pm. These are the usual commuting hours. School-times are particularly manic. Classes begin at 9am.
Speeding: Checks for speeding are carried out by specialised mobile vans. Places where they park are well advertised by this sign.
Garda (Police) Checkpoints: Always stop when indicated by a Garda, slowly coming to a halt and rolling down the window. Politeness on your part will work wonders. Most checks are for road tax and insurance so it is rare that rental car drivers are questioned.
Parking fines: If you get a parking fine contact the nearest local authority office and pay it immediately. If not, the rental company will be billed who will in turn charge you a hefty administration fee along with the parking fine.
Seat belts: Passengers, both front and rear, must wear seatbelts.
Number Plates & Superstition: Whilst not a tip, this is a humorous anecdote. Ireland is quite superstitious and the 2013 number plate debacle demonstrates this well. Number plates in Ireland have the following structure:
Year – County – Number
For example, a 2012 car registered in Kerry would be 12-KY-****. From 2013 onwards the car registration year was split in two so 2013 and plates for subsequent years read as 131/132, 141/142 etc. Check out this article on the change.
So there are my tips for driving in Ireland. Having second thoughts?
To be honest, if you are travelling to counties Kerry, Cork, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal a car will richly enhance your travel experience.
Finally, I would like to point out that this is personal advice based on both my own experience and the feedback of Irish and international drivers. This blog post is not a legal document and should not be treated thus. For up to date safety information please refer to the Road Safety Authority of Ireland website.
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat!