Ireland is a beautiful country with wonderful, chatty, musical, welcoming people. You should see it and you should, in my opinion, rent a car and drive so that you can explore its nooks and crannies. Yes, you will have to drive on the left. Yes, some of the roads get narrow and crooked. You can drive across the whole island in a day and you can drive old country roads. Ireland will be a memorable road trip.
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What We Did Right
CarRentals.co.uk was kind enough to let us use not one but two cars to hold the eight of us traveling together. We had to pay for the collision damage waiver which is required in Ireland. I had expected that my credit card would cover that but apparently Visa wants no part of collision insurance in Ireland, Israel, or Jamaica.
Like most of Europe, most of the rental cars are a standard transmission which is a bit more challenging when you are shifting with the other hand. We were able to get one automatic transmission car or the two.
We had done some things right:
- Both cars had a navigator
- Both cars had a device (cell phone) with a GPS
- Both cars had directions to our first hotel
- We had walkie-talkies which would keep us in contact as long as we stayed within a mile or so of each other
- If I had to do it again I would make sure each car had a phone with an international roaming plan.
What We Did Wrong
Not an auspicious start to a driving tour of Ireland. I lost Kevin, the other driver, at the first roundabout. We had only taken 3 turns from where we picked up our 2 rental cars when he could not get over into the left lane of the roundabout and had to go around again. While we had worried about driving on the left and shifting with our left hand we thought we would do better about following one another.
Kevin sped up and I slowed down so he could catch up. That should have worked but we apparently didn’t see each other as he sped by me so we quickly lost contact on the walkies. For the next hour or so I kept driving slow wondering why he must be driving so slow that he didn’t catch up. Meanwhile, he was speeding down the motorway wondering why I was driving so fast so that he didn’t catch up. We both made it to the B&B in Kilkenny. They got there half an hour before we did.
Oh for the lack of a couple of international roaming cell phones. Google Fi and T-mobile both have great plans but these days all U.S. companies have some international plan.
While I had flown in a day early and was rested, Kevin was getting right off a flight from California. I recommend the former as a strategy. This is Kevin and this is what jet-lag looks like.
Kilkenny was our first stop. It is less than an hour and a half from Dublin airport. Kilkenny is a city with medieval roots which include a Norman castle that dates back to 1195. It is a touristy town with stone buildings and colorful storefronts.
We took the last walking tour of the day from the Visitor’s center through the streets that still preserve a number of the medieval buildings, stopping at Kyteler’s Inn for dinner while locals watched the big championship hurling game.
Rock of Cashel
Our next stop was the Rock of Cashel which is the ruins of a fortress and cathedral on a large defensible limestone outcropping above the town of Cashel. Just driving up to the site led to exclamations of “wow”. One of the advantages of getting your own car is that you don’t have to arrive at the same time as all the other tourists in their tour bus. Our first half-hour at the Rock was much less crowded than after all the buses pulled up.
We explored the area for a few hours and even walked to the nearby ruins of a Cistercian Monastery which is visible from the Rock of Cashel. I did not know a lot about the Cistercians, the Bernardine, or white monks. They were known for a return to manual labor, especially agriculture.
Our host at the B&B the night before had recommended one of 3 routes from Cashel to Dingle that she said was “scenic”. I found that a bit amusing as every road we traveled in Ireland, at least once we were in the countryside, was scenic. We did have rain off and on because there is a cost for all that green.
We stayed in Dingle on the Dingle Penninsula which is a lovely seaside town. While a tourist town it has retained its charm like so many Irish towns. We stayed in the seaside Dingle Bay Hotel.
One of our goals for driving to the west was the drive around the Dingle peninsula to see old ring forts and churches from medieval Ireland as well as signs of habitation going back thousands of years. We also walked to the west edge of Europe at the end of the peninsula. The next parish from here is Boston. Even if you are only walking a quarter of a mile to one of the many ruins or to the famine huts always take a raincoat or an umbrella as this area gets 100 inches of rain a year.
The scenery on the Dingle Penninsula is amazing but so is the history. There are a number of historic places you should stop, but 3 come to mind immediately. We stopped a couple of different iron age ring forts. The one above, Dúnbeg Fort, is on the lip of a cliff and if it is still there, it will not be there forever.
We also stopped at a series of famine cottages that preserve the sad history of the potato famine.
The Gallarus Oratory is a small chapel, likely used for funerals that is built of stone. Historians and archeologists are still debating the origins of this iconic structure.
Roads in Ireland
The motorways in Ireland have a fairly consistent labeling system. Most roads between towns are designated with a letter. The closer the letter is to the letter A the easier the drive. The M routes are the motorways or highways. They have 4 lanes with limited access and rival the roads we have seen anywhere else. The N routes are more local arteries. They tend to be 2 lane roads with lights and lots of traffic circles. There is generally plenty of room to pass oncoming traffic. The R routes get a bit more challenging. There is often a wall of rock or shrubbery on your left and passing oncoming traffic at some points will help explain to you why Ireland is a very religious nation.
I swear on the Dingle peninsula we must have driven a few “Z” routes where someone could lean out both sides of the car and touch the hedges. These are the sort of roads that probably led Visa to say not just “no” but “hell no” on the collision damage waiver issue for Ireland.
Ring of Kerry
On our first trip to Ireland, we chose to visit the Dingle Penninsula instead of the nearby and possibly better-known Ring of Kerry. It is another beautiful peninsula although perhaps has even a few more tour buses. You travel the Ring of Kerry in a counter-clockwise fashion vs the Dingle Penninsula where you travel clockwise.
If you have a week I would choose one or the other. Personally I liked the choice of Dingle. But, if you are interested in getting to Skellig Michael, it is off the coast of the Ring of Kerry. The Ring of Kerry is also closer to Killarney National Park.
We covered the Ring of Kerry in Travel on the Amateur Traveler podcast in The Ring of Kerry in Ireland – Amateur Traveler Episode 304.
Cliffs of Moher
We arrived at the Cliffs of Moher at night. I don’t really recommend driving these rural country roads at night if you can avoid it. Nighttime is a better time for sitting in the pubs listening to local music while you work on a pint. We didn’t have any issues but the driving is more stressful at night when you know that a stone wall is two feet off your left.
The Cliffs of Moher are a spectacular site. Since you don’t have to keep bus schedules plan on an hour or two to explore in each direction from the main viewing area. I would not recommend you tempt gravity as much as the folks did in this photograph, however. The cliffs are not as stable as people think and a few people die each year from getting too close to the edge.
Cromwell’s surveyor described the Burren this way: “There is not a tree to hang a man from, water to drown one in nor dirt to bury one in”. Which tells you a bit about the Burren and a lot about the priorities of Cromwell’s surveyor.
This “barren” area boasts numerous ring forts as well as a portal tomb, Poulnabrone dolmen that dates back to at least 2900 B.C. While not as barren as the southwest in the USA, the heart of the Burren is nearly solid rock broken up by channels cut by water every few inches which fill with grass.
Almost every night along our trip we ate dinner in a pub. There was usually live music and quite often a more varied menu than I expected in an Irish pub. In addition to Irish beer, you can also always find a good cider. Every drink has its own glass so you can look at any table and tell what brand of beer or cider they are sinking. As a group of 8 with 3 couples and two singles, I expected a hassle with splitting the check but the system was pretty easy. Each person, family unit or couple would come up to the bar and say what they had and then just pay that portion.
From the Burren, we drove up to Galway. The rest of our companions enjoyed a tour of Galway but I had to leave early for a conference in Dublin.
When you get to Dublin, it is time to return the rental car as you won’t need it to get around the city. We took a Sandeman walking tour of the city which is a great way to orient yourself to the heart of Dublin. The tour included the Temple Bar area which is where you can find a lively nightlife scene, Dublin Castle, the Post Office (besieged in the Irish Uprising), Trinity College, the Molly Malone Statue, St Patrick’s Cathedral, and more.
Dublin is one of the oldest cities in Ireland with roots that include the Irish but also Vikings, Normans, and of course the English. It is a city that deserves at least a few days to explore on its own.
We found the roads to be well marked, with a few exceptions, but a GPS and a navigator were very handy. Dueling GPS systems between the two cars led to occasional confusion and banter over the walkie-talkies. We learned to appreciate the value of a good traffic circle and loved the freedom and sense of adventure that driving on our own gave us. And, when we turned the car in with only a few scratches from roadside shrubbery, we heaved a sigh of relief.