I had this vague notion about my first trip to Ireland 15 years ago: that I would seek out some connection with an Irish ancestor who had emigrated sometime in the nineteenth century, landed in Minnesota and started procreating. The family had very little information about him. Because my husband and I were living on our boat in the Caribbean at the time, I had no access to the internet or any ancestry-investigating websites. There was not even a librarian I could ask, which meant I did not do any research at all about the phantom Irishman. Like I said, I had a vague notion.
Brian and I also had a fairly vague idea of how we were going to travel around the country. Hitch hiking was common in Ireland back then but two people hitching can be more complex that just one, so we nixed that idea. Trains and buses did not always go to places we wanted to experience, like Drombeg stone circle for example, and the schedules were spotty as well. The big tourist coaches with their organized tours and guides holding up paddles so their clients could follow them around villages and cathedrals? “Kill me if I ever say I want to do that,” was my husband’s comment. We finally decided to rent a car, which had its own problems, one of which was crossing the border into Northern Ireland, which had had a recent spate of bombings leading up to the Good Friday agreement. Another was the prohibitive cost to rent. Money that cut directly into our travel fund and would reduce the amount of time we could spend there.
Brian and I are, and have always been, budget travelers. We like to travel close to the ground, not isolating ourselves from locals by choosing the cocoon of a touring coach. We have camped beside an abbey, drinking wine and listening to the monks sing evensong. Completely free of charge, aside from the bottle of burgundy. Another time we watched the moon race across the sun in a total eclipse from our perch atop Bodmin Moor, courtesy of our friends Sophie and Nicholas, who let us park our VW camper in their yard for a week.
All of these ideas for transport around Ireland were banging around our brains and in our conversations when a charter guest of ours commented one day as we sailed up the Sir Francis Drake channel in the British Virgin Islands, “I have an old VW camper van you can use up at our place in Oxford. Just pick it up there, take it to Ireland and return it with the tank full.” Our kind of bargain! A few months later we were in Oxford, England packing the van with our things, stocking up on a bit of food then waving good bye to our charter guest, promising to bring his van back in a few months.
Instead of limiting ourselves to bus and train schedules or joining a tour group, we were going to see Ireland in what is really a classic American mode of travel: the road trip. The camper van turned out to be a mechanical nightmare. We spent enough time with Irish mechanics on both sides of the border to be fluent in garage-speak. In all of our meandering, we never did look up my Irish ancestor, but I thought perhaps I would come back some day and get a chance to do that.
You can read more about that trip to Ireland at Two Tales of One City
This summer I made my second extended visit to Ireland and after doing some trip research, I came to the same conclusion that we had fifteen years ago. A road trip would be the best way to take in the Ireland I was coming back to visit. Spending one night in a town, then perhaps three days in a village further up the road or the other side of a mountain. The ability to drive into a village from my lodging to listen to music and join in a sing-along. Having my own transportation meant not being at the mercy of someone else’s agenda or even sticking to an itinerary of my own making. I would have the flexibility to really go with whatever flowed.
Cost was still a factor in my choice, but fortunately I have Brian, who loves doing travel research and who can spot a bargain at 20 paces or 20 page clicks. He found me a rental car in Dublin for a fairly reasonable price, one that used diesel so it would get great mileage.
This trip would be my first time traveling solo in probably twenty five years. If you are a woman and plan to travel alone, Ireland is a pretty safe bet. The US State Department alerts about Ireland (which I never checked before leaving for Ireland because it’s Ireland for the love of St. Brendan) are pretty much limited to 1) thieves work in touristed areas, 2) thieves work around ATMs in touristed areas, and 3) don’t leave your drink unattended in a bar. All typical stuff for any town in the USA or anywhere else in the entire world. Basically, this translates as Pay attention and don’t be an idiot.
Most of my warnings prior to heading to Ireland came from friends and family, none of whom had made a solo road trip in Ireland or anywhere else, and those were concerns about narrow roads, driving on the wrong (that is, left) side of the road and the driver’s seat being on the right side of the car. Those were all valid points and throughout my personal trip planning notes I sprinkled Drive on the left. LEFT. LEFT!!! among the other tips for driving in Ireland that I found online. Tips like: Carry toilet paper in the car. Keep an eye out for bicyclists, and also sheep and other livestock that may be grazing along the side of the road. The speed limits seemed slow and quaint to me, accustomed to wide streets and interstates.
Once I landed in Ireland and was on the road in the VW Golf diesel I rented, the majority of concerns for my safety came from older Irish gentlemen. Basically they thought I was crazy to be driving around their country alone and let me know that politely. Once I assured them that I was a careful driver, keeping an eye out for bicyclists, sheep and other livestock grazing along the roads, these gentlemen would pat my hand and say conspiratorially, “Well, you know where you should go then…” and suggest some out of the way, un-touristed place. Then they would give directions that inevitably got me lost but that also offered the opportunity to speak to more people along the way as I stopped time and again to ask for more information to get my bearings.
I made mistakes when driving in Ireland at first, like turning from a stop sign into the wrong (that is, right) side of the road twice but making a course correction before any collision could occur. The standard transmission was not a problem, since my last car (and also my first car) were both 5-speed standards. Shifting gears with my left hand was tricky though and it seemed to take a couple of weeks before that became smooth and automatic, which was fine really because it made me a more mindful driver.
Early mornings became my favorite time to drive the roads of Ireland, before any tourist buses were out taking up more than their share of tarmac. Local folks would be getting a start on their day, so I would sometimes use the excuse of needing directions to stop and talk. Morning starts meant that I was more likely to see sheep or cows being herded across the road by a farmer. So I was cautious about that. I also realized that those speed limits I thought were quaintly slow were actually insanely fast along those narrow lanes where there wasn’t a left side of the road and a right side but barely a single lane with enough room for my small VW. I learned to fold my side mirrors in each time I parked the car.
Being able to stop anywhere and any time that strikes your fancy is a key part of a road trip. In Ireland that meant stopping every few kilometers, at least in the first few days when it seemed like I had never seen that many shades of green in a landscape before and needed to capture it. Each church ruin or castle wall I passed called for a photo-op. I have lots of photographs of sheep crossing the lane in front of my car. As long as there was room to pull over safely, I would park the car, get out to stretch my legs and take in the scenery. Further on into the trip, I gained confidence and my idea of how much room was required to pull over safely got smaller and smaller, as did the space I was comfortable having between my side mirror and the one passing me.
Ireland has an enduring bicycle culture. Guys old enough to be my grandfather would pedal along the country roads on single speed bikes slow but steady, wearing a tweed jacket and not breaking a sweat. I saw lots of touring bicycles too, especially in county Kerry where the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle was coming up soon. There were enough bikes on the roads to be a great reminder of caution. Still, driving up behind an elderly bicyclist at midnight west of Dingle town, after I had enjoyed a rousing evening of traditional music and Murphy’s stout, scared the crap out of me. The old guy just waved me around, not a bother on him as the Irish might say. Minutes later safe in my room, I sipped a glass of Jamesons and drank a toast to the guy with the guts to be out riding his bike at midnight with people like me behind the wheels of cars that we rented just days before.
Halfway through my trip I spent most of a week with some other writers from the USA at a retreat on an island in the Ilen river near Skibbereen. I would spend my mornings with them, taking part in discussions on the craft of writing. Nearly every afternoon, three or four others would hop in my car and we would drive the winding lanes into Skibbereen, where we would drink coffee, write and connect to wifi at the Paragon Bar or Annie May’s place. The car was an instrument in drawing our little group close together. Those afternoons getting to know each other well enough to trust with our writing joys and fears were transformative for some of us.
Sometimes I listened to an Irish talk radio station while I drove. On a three-hour stretch from Cork city to Kilkenny, the topic was Why People Travel, so I was hooked. I love local radio talk shows if I get a chance to hear them when I am traveling, provided I can understand the language. Fortunately for me I understand English when spoken by the Irish, at least most of the time and if they don’t mind slowing down some and repeating a phrase when necessary. Your ear gets attuned to the accent and cadences if you try. Irish talk radio is a gas. The Irish will provide great humor even when they aren’t trying that hard. A large part of that is their willingness to take the mick out of themselves; to be the butt of their own jokes. You will definitely get some cultural insight listening in.
When I finally dropped the rental car off at the airport in Dublin and handed over the keys, I looked back at my ride for the past 1800 kilometers (1080 miles) and felt a bit like a cowboy leaving his faithful horse behind.
Ireland made for a first-rate road trip. No disaster had befallen me. No collisions, thefts or drinks spiked. I’d had none of the engine problems that plagued my first Irish journey. Traveling on my own with a rental car turned out to be a perfect choice. I abandoned my vague notion to research my Irish ancestor and made my own memories instead.