An unenthusiastic driver and a small city car might not seem ideal for embarking on a 1,500 mile road trip to explore the Emerald Isle. Perhaps we should have seen sense, booked a fly-drive or travelled around by train. But no, gripped by an unusual sense of adventure, we had soon booked car ferries and hotels that would see us cross the Republic of Ireland from coast to coast. Twice. We’d also need to cross the entire breadth of Wales and much of England just to reach the boat over of course, but the fun is in getting there – no need to get bogged down in details.
And so it was, we loaded up our modest chariot, cramming what little we could in the minuscule boot and heaping the rest across the back seats. Our new SatNav app was set for Fishguard, and given this was its first outing, we were counting on it to take us at least roughly in the right direction. On to the M4 motorway, the Satnav instructs us to follow the course of the road for the next 180 miles. Nice and easy. Easy that was, until we reached the Newport tunnel just closed by a lorry fire. We ground to a halt at first, and then began to proceed at a pace that would not see snails break a sweat. Would we even make the ferry and get to see the shore of Ireland? Happily we eventually emerged out of the contraflow system and made best speed for Fishguard port, arriving shortly before check-in closed.
Just when we felt we were getting our sea legs onboard the ferry, Rosslare emerged from the sea fog and it was time to return to the car. We were on Irish soil, and my first precarious miles of driving abroad began. It’s just as well that Ireland makes for a relatively gentle introduction to hitting the road in another country. The core principles remain the same, such as driving on the left, but it throws in some unfamiliar elements to keep you on your toes, such as speed limits in km/h and the use of many curious road signs using the American yellow diamond format.
We were off to a steady start, possibly going at the right speed for the road, but are thrown into confusion by vehicles moving left into an area of the road marked by yellow dashes. There’s no mention of this in our guide book, so we adopt the when in Rome approach, and are soon overtaking these vehicles bearing over on the left, without really overtaking. It feels wrong, but seems to work. Some of the roads in Ireland are remarkably wide in fact, and with this left-hand area in use they become dual-carriageways, after a fashion. This is just as well as most roads allow very few opportunities for overtaking; without this extra room to manoeuvre it would take even longer to pass Ireland’s menagerie of slow-moving vehicles – comprising tractors, long lorries, pony traps and an odd trait by drivers of slowing to a snail’s pace when getting within a couple of miles or so of where they need to turn off.
It soon became clear that the Irish take a more relaxed, less up-tight approach to driving and parking than we were used to. In the UK, parking is rigorously enforced and is essentially a revenue making exercise where the smallest contravention from the extensive and varied parking rules will result in the car park owner gleefully slapping your vehicle with a ticket. Not so in Ireland, where parking follows necessity, and rampant parking on double-yellows in the congested coastal village of Baltimore is seemingly accepted because, well, there’s really nowhere else to park. Hurray for free parking all over the place – the jobsworth traffic wardens of home were not missed.
Nor did we miss the executive car drivers who plague the roads of England’s home counties; those self-important Audi, BMW or Merc owners who spend their time no more than a couple of centimetres off your bumper, looking for an opportunity to roar past at an ill-chosen moment before inevitably getting stuck behind the next vehicle or set of lights. The Irish, from what we saw, seemed to favour practical cars, and held a calmer head to match. Wherever it was they were going, it always seemed they had time enough to get there, and would likely speak well of the journey on arrival, whatever had come to pass.
Irish roads are not without their challenges, however. While some roads are new and smooth, other main roads can be rough, bumpy, and occasionally fraught with rather lethal looking potholes; none of which are taken too well in our little car designed for undemanding urban roads. Turning onto local roads as we did on a few routes is also rather seat of your pants, being narrow or single-track and full of blind corners.
All said and done, I loved driving in Ireland. The roads simply seemed clear and unrushed compared to what I was used to. Driving actually became a pleasure, and despite my hitherto lack of enthusiasm for long journeys in the car, I suddenly found myself something of a convert. Of course our holiday inevitably came to an end and we had to return to the more crowded roads of England, but I’ve returned with a new passion for the road. Ireland showed me what driving can offer and now it’s time to discover great drives closer to home.