So we disembark (that’s what the Irish call it on the customs form) the plane in Shannon after being awake a full 24 hours and the friendly Hertz representative – yes, shocking fact, even the rental car guys are happy here – jangles a couple of keys in front of us and says good luck, have a grand trip. Was it just me or did I hear laughter coming from the Hertz booth as the automatic doors slid open and we got our first taste of rainy Ireland?
Dave says he’s up for the challenge. He’s a much better driver than me for many reasons, mainly because he pays attention and won’t be distracted by things like cute little lambies trotting through the fields.
We drag our three suitcases (one empty and reserved for souvenirs) to spot 27 in the Hertz aisle and meet our car, a Renault Twingo. It’s the size of a teacup. I think it used to be part of a ride at Disney World. I could fold it up and fit it in our empty suitcase. But it’s a Renault. Dave and I both had Renaults in our long line of shitty car lineage so we take this as a good sign.
There’s the steering wheel on the passenger side of the car and there’s the stick that will be shifted with Dave’s left hand. There’s also the matter of the GPS (also known as a Sat Nav in Europe). Dave hands me the GPS and says, “figure that out” as he crams our suitcases into the micro-trunk. There’s no manual for the GPS and neither of us have ever used one but how hard can it be? I start pressing buttons and hope for the best.
And we’re off! But I’m still trying to work the GPS and we’re approaching our first of 95,000 roundabouts and the GPS is barking orders. Actually, the GPS doesn’t bark as much as it coos in very soothing, British-accented tones that it’s recalculating our route and that we need to make an unauthorized U-turn as soon as possible. But I can’t be worried about things like heading in the right direction when we’re still giving our GPS guide-voice a name. We quickly decide on Clare since we’re in County Clare and there’s another roundabout up ahead and Clare is telling us to take the second exit but we’re not sure which exit is the second one; it appears there are several second exits.
The luck of the Irish is with us as we guess correctly and Clare’s blinking blue arrow continues in the right direction. We’re on our way to Galway, our first stop in our nine-day trip. Dave is driving on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road on absolutely no sleep and zero caffeinated beverages. Brilliant!
Here’s what we learn in short order about driving in Ireland:
Dave should be your designated driver if you decide to go to Ireland. Nerves of steel. Good reaction time. Moderate cursing which is usually directed at the GPS. And you can pay him in pints. Really, he did a bang-up job and I mean that figuratively. We got out of the country with minor damage to a hubcap caused by a slight parallel parking incident in Listowel.
The “N” in “N Road” does not stand for National highway.” You assume the “N” means “national” highway and you have the impression that these roads you will be taking will be quite wide and 4-laned or 2-laned and be filled with helpful signs and arrows. But you know the old saying about “assume” meaning “ass out of u and me?” Ah yes, it rings true here. Sometimes N Roads and R Roads are as wide as the gravel driveway leading up to grandpa’s farm. Oh, and sometimes there are steep cliffs on either side. As our friend said, driving in Ireland is fun…at least that’s how you have to think about it.
When walking about these narrow lanes and roads or working in their yards close to the side of the roads, people wear yellow vests that are typically reserved for construction workers directing traffic. We believe they wear these vests so all of the American drivers marauding on their roads can easily identify them as humans with family and friends and four in-tact and attached limbs that they would prefer to hang on to.
If you’re a whiz at car-driving video games, you’ll be grand in Ireland. Case in point: on Day Four while driving through Tralee on our way to Dingle, we encounter the following obstacles within a mere 200 meters: a car door opens on the left side of road and Dave swerves to avoid it only to be met head-on by an ancient man riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the road and coming straight for the Twingo’s windshield. Dave immediately dubs him Old Man and Sea as in “AHH!!, Old Man and Sea!!! Get the fuck out of the way, you Old Man and the Sea!” In Dave’s defense, the guy did have a long white beard.
A few seconds later a small dog darts out into the street and we breathe a sigh of relief as an old woman yanks the scraggly terrier back into her arms before he becomes an international incident under the Twingo’s tire. It’s just then that we approach another roundabout and Clare instructs us to take the third exit and as we get in our lane another car cuts Dave off and we swerve again. At this point, I’m pretending that I can actually control the car by pretend-braking with my braking foot and Dave has racked up zillions of bonus points and double scores in his personal driving obstacle course but we’re not finished yet. Oh no. Once we exit the roundabout (in the correct way, thanks) Dave is faced with the ass end of a horse backing out of its trailer. Super Mario Purcell clears the horse with ease and by this time I’m having a laughing fit and have developed a nervous twitch with my braking foot and nearly miss Clare’s next set of instructions.
Clare lies. Clare may sound sweet and nice and ready to offer you a hot cup of tea with some soda bread but she can be wickedly wrong. If we had listened to her a couple of times, we would’ve been in the Irish Sea or driving through someone’s cow pasture. Do yourself and all of the Irish locals a favor and bring a paper map with you as a backup.
Reverse requires a fancy maneuver. This we learn after several recalculated routes and unauthorized U-turns on the jam-packed streets of Galway proper. Clare is not speaking to us at this point. We can almost hear her sighing because she’s told us three times that we have arrived at our destination which looks a lot like another roundabout and not so much like a comfy B&B with the caffeinated beverages that we desperately crave.
We pull into a petrol station to get directions from a real person who might be named Clare or Mary or Molly or Our Lord Jesus Christ and Savior Please Direct Us To The B&B.
The attendant, a very kind and worried-about-my-general-disheveledness-and-24-hour-bathless-odor woman, grabs her face in the universal sign of horror and tells me we are tragically lost and that our B&B is clear across the O-something-something-bridge that is completely on the far side of town and oh dear, I am so sorry you are so far away from where you need to be and have been driving around Galway in all of this traffic due to the Volvo Ocean Races which are going on right now, doncha know, and you most definitely need to have a look at the boats when you get settled yes, yes, yes, it’s been a lovely event and not to be missed now.
(Side note: we learn a few recalculated routes and unauthorized U-turns later in our trip that being tragically lost in Ireland means you’re about two blocks away from where you need to be; apparently the locals just don’t want us to be menacing their streets any more than we have to. But this is our first lost-ness and we are devastated that we are no closer to anything resembling a bed).
I scribble down what I think are the instructions the very kind and horrified attendant rattles off and thank her for her help. Was it me or did I hear the attendant mutter, “ah tourists, they’re so lost” to her attendant friend as I ran out the door hoping I’d accurately captured the lengthy directions that included two roundabouts, the O’Brian Bridge, and something about a Super-Value store which is big and red, you can’t miss it, love.
Dave shoves the stick in reverse and the Twingo rolls …. forward. Dave tries again. And again. No dice. We stare at the stick, willing it to reverse itself or at least spout out coffee or another caffeinated beverage because it’s the morning, people, and we haven’t slept or showered in over 24 hours nor has anything resembling a java crossed our lips since yesterday. Actually, coffee time is over and we’re expecting the Twingo stick to serve up a few foamy pints of Guinness.
Dave tries again and sort of talks to the stick, encouraging it to f-ing cooperate please. And then he remembers that in his old Renault Le Car he had to first pull up on the stick and then push it to the left to hit reverse. Bingo (or should I say Twingo!), we’re backing out of the petrol station.
Two final things about navigating through the Republic:
First, you enter the roundabout at six o’clock. See graphic. We learn this from Mary O’Connor who we meet in Monroe’s on our first night in Galway. Mary is one of Ireland’s finest – a driving instructor. This alone gives her patron saint of travelers status. She is our very own Saint Christopher. We explain our day of driving and the confusion with the roundabout exits.
She tells us, emphatically pointing to her diagram, that a roundabout is like the face of a clock. You enter at 6 o’clock and your first exit is at nine, the second at 12 and so on. And if you’re unsure, just “have a look” and drive the full circle until you find what you need. Here is where our patron saint of driving instruction’s husband Matt chimes in: “If you enter the roundabout at 6 o’clock and you’re still there at 7 o’clock, you’ve fucked up.” This remained the best comic line of the trip and it happened on our first night.
And finally, call your B&B operator and get better directions than those listed on the website which usually go something like this: “Manor House B&B, Main Street, Kilkenny. You can’t miss it.”
It’s best to get as much detail as you can. Our friend Ann provided us a page and a half of instructions to her house in Ballingeary and they were ludicrously perfect. Here’s a snippet:
You’ll come to a corner that has a big Co-op on the near right corner. There’s a Centra or similar shop across the street. There’s also usually a medium-sized plastic ice cream cone on the corner. Should also be a sign post for Gougane Barra. Turn right. And be careful at the start of this road, you’re going to come around a blind corner onto a narrow bridge and you won’t see a car on the bridge until you’re nearly hitting it. You’re on this twisty little road without much in the way of landmarks for about 4 km.
Now those are directions, folks! If you’re ever County Cork, give Ann a ring. She’ll get you where you need to go with zero recalculations, no U-turns, and maybe even a cup of tea at the end of the drive.
The Babo Rating For Ireland Driving (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant! but sometimes Babo makes his own scale)
5 cookies on Dave’s driving skills, actually maybe a dozen.
3 cookies for having a pint after every long drive.
Negative 5 cookies on that shite road that cut through the Burren on the way to the Cliffs of Moher because that’s how many cookies I upchucked as we twisted and turned down a road as thin as a pencil.
5 cookies to the cow impasse outside of Listowel – that was fun! I love me some cows crossing the road and stopping traffic!
4 cookies to Clare for being mostly accurate, except for that shite road incident listed above.
A dozen cookies to the locals for always being friendly when the tourists make mistakes or drive under the speed limit