Tips From Our Two Week Trip Driving Around Ireland (2011)

Driving in Ireland, as we learned can be quite the adventure, but it is well worth the experience! The following tips are things we learned researching our trip, what we found most beneficial to someone exploring Ireland for the first time and what we might do differently next time.

  1. Car Rental. We rented a small four door manual car. The vast majority of the roads (particularly in the south, southeast and southwest of Ireland) had stonewalls lining the road (even many of the national roads). The walls were almost on the white line on the edge and were often covered with vines. Not only are automatic shift cars extremely expensive to rent, but also they tended to be larger. I can't imagine having a bigger car than we had passing cars and buses on those roads. We saw numerous cars with their passenger rear view mirrors ripped off and only wires remaining. One tourist told us they saw a sculpture made of amputated rear view mirrors on their journey around Ireland! Not only do you have to drive on the left side of the road but you have to shift with the left had as well. It cost us around $70.00 US to fill the tank of our small car. Read your car rental contract carefully to evaluate all the insurance options so you don't get dinged in the end (super collision damage Waiver coverage etc). We got more coverage than we normally do on trips because of the stories we had heard about charges being levied for scratches, dents after the trip by others.
  2. E FLOW Tolls around Dublin. Be sure to ask your rental car company about the M50 Ring road that goes around Dublin. There is a 3 euro charge that is levied by an automatic sensor as you pass this point along the M50 (every time you pass it). The charge is automatically charged to your cars vehicle ID number and must be paid by 8PM the following day or a huge fine is levied. It is easy to pay at a variety of sites like certain petrol stations (We paid down in Kilkenny). Verify with the rental car company where the sensor if located and if you will encounter it on your planned route around Dublin. We weren't sure how many times we passed the sensor as we got lost trying to find the Sally Gap on the way to Glendalough and had to get back on the M50 several times. Apparently some rental car companies come with an E flow pass- where it is automatically charged to your credit card by your rental car company- ours didn't have that. We were told we could call E Flow to verify how much we owed for EFlow and get a refund if we overpaid (to avoid a possible hefty fine levied later). That turned out not to be the case as we couldn't verify through E Flow the amount owed, leaving us to deal with the rental car company. We returned the car to Dublin airport from the County Meath area of Trim, used part of the M50 to get there but didn't pass the sensor on that segment of our trip so there was no fee.
  3. Avoid Driving into Dublin if at all possible. We chose to drop off our car off and then spend two nights in Dublin at the end of our trip. There is great public transportation. We stayed on O'Connell Street at the Gresham Hotel; it is an older hotel in a bustling area just across the river from the Temple Bar District (where many great pubs are), and a short walk to the main sites of Dublin. The airport shuttle buses are convenient and run about every 15-20 minutes back and forth between the airport and Dublin. Check which one drops you off closest to your hotel. (It makes a difference if it is raining!).
  4. Seriously Consider getting a Heritage Pass. It is easiest to pick one up when you first arrive or at the first Heritage site you visit. It will more than pay for itself in a short time. Go to the Heritage Sites of Ireland Website to see the list of sites that it covers. It costs 21euro per adult, 16 euros for a senior citizen, 8 euro for a child or 55 euro for a family. It covers many of my favorite sites like: Glendalough Visitor Center, Rock of Cashel, Bru na Boinne Visitor Center (Newgrange and Knowth), Ross Castle, Jerpoint Abbey, Kilkenny Castle, Trim Castle, Charles Fort in Kinsale and many other sites. It was a no-brainer for us to buy this pass.
  5. The Heritage Island Visitor's Guide. We purchased this one as well. It was pretty inexpensive and provides various discounts (some are 2 for 1) on 90 visitor attractions (all are different than those covered by the Heritage Pass). It probably paid for itself even with the few sites we used it for. We would have used it more if we had more time! Cost 6.99 Euro per person.
  6. Get a good map such as The Complete Road Atlas of Ireland (Ordinance Survey). This is what we used. The vast number of country towns between the small towns in the Republic of Ireland were not named. They look smaller than most of the country roads we had where I grew up in the Midwest. Many had a grass patch between two tire tracks! There are also blow-ups of small sections of the ordinance survey maps that can be obtained. I think they are in 6 mile or so sections that might help to locate specific small towns. People were more than willing to give us directions. Most people were familiar with the names of the national roads (like the N Roads) but few ever gave us directions with the numbers from the secondary roads (R Roads). The locals tended to give directions based on end destinations and local landmarks. "Go through two roundabouts, make a left at the next T, turn right at the building with the fisherman on the wall and look for the signs for ?"
  7. The Road Signage takes a while to get used to. It certainly helps to have a "navigator" passenger looking for the destination signs. Many sign posts will have 10 + signs on them all at different angles with both England and Gaelic spellings and they are often small and in unusual places (like low and on your left when you go around the roundabouts. We learned that if you are unsure which of the multiple directions you wish to head from a roundabout keep going in a circle before you get off and go way off course. Especially in the larger cities like Cork, Galway City, Dublin and Belfast. We talked to numerous travelers who were using GPS devices with mixed reviews. Many said that the devices took them on much longer routes than was available. We found that even with a good map it helps to just verify your next day's route with the Bed and Breakfast owner. Many times they give you an alternate, more scenic or just better road to take. I wanted to take the scenic Sally Gap route to Glendalough written about in several guidebooks, but we had a heck of a time finding the R roads to get us there from the Ring Road around Dublin and later learned from other travelers that they were discouraged from this road because of the poor road quality. We were navigating pretty well by the end of the trip but we had challenges along the way getting into both Galway City and Derry because of traffic accidents that closed major arteries into those cities. Even Google maps Ireland seemed to fall short in route selection compared to local knowledge.
  8. Of Round Towers, Castles, Ring Forts, Abbeys, Famine Museums, Famine Ships and Estate Homes. The number of ruins from Round Towers, Famine Structures, Abbeys, Ring Forts, Castles and other structures of historical interest scattered around the country is staggering. Many charge for entrance so unless you have an endless supply of funds you may want to pick which ones you will visit and which ones you may just get a passing picture of. We deliberately chose not to visit Bunratty Castle and Blarney Castle because of their reputation for being over run with tourists. We chose instead to tour Trim Castle in County Meath (the largest in Ireland), Dublin Castle, Ross Castle, Caher Castle and took pictures of many others. The same goes for Abbeys- many are in absolutely beautiful settings such as Kylemore Abbey, County Galway (that is now an International Girls School), and others like Murrisk Abbey (across from Croagh Patrick in Mayo), Mellifont Abbey near Drogheda, County Meath, Jerpoint Abbey near Kilkenny and the most impressive Glendalough (a monastic center from the 6th century) were places of religious pilgrimage. It is difficult to choose. I hope to put our itinerary and pictures of some of what we saw on line in the near future. We toured the Dunbrody Famine ship in New Ross, on the way to Kilkenny but there is also one in downtown Dublin. We visited the Famine Museum in Strokestown County Roscommon and the Museum of Country Life in Turlough (just outside of Castlebar, Mayo), both of which were really well done. We toured the Home of Daniel O'Connell "Derrynane House" along the Ring of Kerry because of his significance as a liberator, role in Catholic Emancipation and the history of Ireland. Westport House in Westport County Mayo and Strokestown House in Roscommon are just a few of many options.
  9. Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. Both of these are quite amazing, but if you have to choose because your time is limited, I would want to see the Dingle Peninsula. It is spectacular if the visibility is ok and not foggy. Rick Steve's Ireland 2011 has a great km-by-km guide of both routes that is worth following. The Dingle Peninsula is only 30 miles vs. 120 for the Ring of Kerry. He gives you great tips as to what direction to go and times to get places to beat the tour buses. His suggestions were spot on. Everyone is different but I would not want to stay in Killarney as my base to explore the Ring of Kerry. Kenmare is so much nicer. Killarney seemed like a real tourist trap to us- loaded with tour buses and lacking in the amazing charm of so many of the other Townlands.
  10. Bed and Breakfasts vs. Hotels. We usually don't do the Bed and Breakfast route, but we did on this trip for everywhere except Dublin and it was a great decision. We chose them all based on reviews in Rick Steve's Ireland 2011, Pauline Frommer's Ireland as well as Trip Advisor's Reviews, and they were all extremely friendly, clean with good food and all were quite enjoyable. The people in the Republic of Ireland were so warm and friendly; the bed and breakfast experience was amazing! We wouldn't do it any other way. The breakfast provided was quite large, usually with numerous choices such as the traditional Irish breakfast, or eggs and smoked salmon, yogurt, granola and fruit.
  11. Northern Ireland- to go or not to go that is the question. We only had two weeks to travel around Ireland so it was a difficult decision as to whether we should take a few days to check out the north. We spent two nights in Northern Ireland. We did a walking tour in Derry. The walled fortresses around this city and the stories they tell are so significant in Irish History that they are definitely worth seeing. I will say that the people we encountered there were quite unfriendly (the tourist office was down right rude to us). We also visited the Giant's Causeway up along the Antrim Coast where we stayed only two miles or so away from the Causeway but it seemed like miles out in the country at a great little B & B "The Valley View Country House Bed and Breakfast" run by Valerie McFall. We drove through Belfast but decided not to stop and instead headed down to Trim, County Meath to see a host of great sights. Remember the speed limit is in km per hour in the Republic of Ireland and mph in Northern Ireland.
  12. VAT Refund. Remember to ask the merchants where you purchase items if a VAT was charged, if so ask them to sign a form to give you that shows your purchase and the tax paid so you can seek a refund upon your departure from Ireland. Fill them out as you go so you can remember what you purchased where. There is an office to turn in the receipts at the airport for your convenience.
  13. My favorite towns. When I asked other travelers what their favorite place in Ireland was, I heard a lot of different places. I think that everyone has a different idea about his or her perfect Ireland trip. I have talked to some people that felt the best towns were those with the best pubs- their ideal trip being a fun pub tour of Ireland. They seemed to mention Galway City, Dingle and the Temple Bar area of Dublin among their favorites. There is a pub in Westport, County Mayo called Matt Malloy's that is owned by a flute player with the Chieftain's. He periodically makes an appearance in his pub to play. We enjoyed the traditional Irish Music that was played at the pubs and we ate primarily at the restaurant pubs throughout Ireland. We had some good seafood meals in the south and more "chips" than I care to eat again. It was quite a site to see the number of empty Guinness kegs being loaded up from the Temple Bar District in Dublin on a Friday morning (not even the weekend). The amount consumed was staggering and at about 5-6 euros a pint that is a tidy profit I am sure! My favorite town was Kinsale with Kilkenny a close second. If I had a few extra days I would add an extra day in each and maybe spend time in Inistioge too. (Inistioge was a beautiful town near Thomastown not far from Kilkenny.) A rain-free day spent hiking up Croagh Patrick; Ireland's holy mountain would be a memorable experience as well. Many people we spoke with seemed to prefer flying into Shannon than Dublin. I think I would still want to spend at least a day in Dublin if I did that. It is a vibrant cosmopolitan city with quality sites to see and great genealogical resources to investigate.
  14. Genealogical Research at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. This is a great resource to check out parish microfilm that is not available in the United States at the LDS church (for example Castlerea Parish in Roscommon). They also have amazing manuscript collections. Estate records for some of the major landlords in Ireland are held at this library. For example they have estate papers for Lord De Frayne (Roscommon, Leitrim), Viscount Dillon (Mayo), Lord Mt Sandford (Roscommon and Westmeath), Lord Lorton (Roscommon, Sligo), Lord Clanmorris (Mayo, Galway, Dublin), Earl of Arran (Mayo, Wexford, Donegal and Sligo), the Gore Papers (Donegal and Mayo), Marquis of Sligo (Mayo, Galway) and Land League Papers that include eviction forms just to name a few. I found it a bit challenging to search their website for what I was seeking. To look at manuscripts and reserve specific ones in advance you will need to get a reader's ticket. This requires providing passport info, and a photo is taken. To save time I did this the afternoon before I planned to do my research. I also submitted a request for 5 manuscripts that I wished to look at the next day. You do not need a reader's ticket to look at the church microfilm. I didn't see anyone in the Parish microfilm room to help me when I arrived. All backpacks need to be locked up in the available lockers (no charge). The Church microfilm is up the steps past the info desk and to the right. As you enter the room the cabinet with the film is on your left. You need to fill out a form with your name, the film you are looking at and your table number. Place the paper in an empty "in use" box (above the cabinet) and place the box in the slot where you removed your film so others can find you if they wish to look at that film as well. They had the lights on in the microfilm room, which made it more difficult to read difficult film so a sheet of solid yellow paper might help for contrast. There are restrictions on usage of any images copied, but they said it was ok to take digital photos (no flash) as well with that caveat in mind. They also apparently have a machine to copy images from the microfilm that I didn't take the time to use. In the NLI catalog, parish registers are listed with a P. (Castlerea was P.4619 in example). Manuscripts on Microfilm were listed as such (n.5208) and are held upstairs on second floor, and the Manuscripts held in the NLI building several doors down (exhibition building) such as those for the landlord estate papers were noted as Ms. or Mss. for multiple manuscripts in a collection (i.e. Lord Clanmorris of Mayo, Galway- NLI Ms 3279). The more you know of what you are looking for and how to use the facility and equipment will save you tons of time when you have little to spare! The hours of operation vary during the week. It opened at 0930 when I was there and closed at 1700. If you want a genealogy consult you may want to get there early during the peak season (you have to take a number to get in the queue).
  15. Genealogical Research at the Valuation Office in Dublin. The Valuation office is now located in the Irish Life Center on Lower Abbey Street in Dublin. It was a short 4-minute walk from where we stayed at the Gresham hotel on O'Connell Street and on the same side of the River. As you go south on O'Connell Street, turn left on Lower Abbey, walk past Marlborough Street and the Abbey Theatre. It will be across the street on the left in the Irish Life Centre. The office is on the first floor of the building to the right as you face the fountain. I had already thoroughly researched the Griffith's Valuation (the website is a great source), so I was interested in looking at the Cancelled books that they hold. You are allowed to take digital images and they have a copy machine as well. I took digital images. Unfortunately, whether due to low light levels or ? the colored ink did not appear to show up in my images to be able to differentiate when the changes in occupier occurred. Ugh! This is huge as the changes are color coded by ink color for different years (purple for years ending in 0,5 i.e.). I can see that the property changed hands but not the specific year. So my best advice here is use their copy machine (though a bit pricey if you just have a few pages well worth the cost) These books will show you changes in parcel occupiers- (how the property changes hands from family member to family member upon an occupier's death or immigration). They can also do research for you for around euro 25.39 plus possible copying fees.
  16. Choice of Season of Travel. We chose to take our trip the last two weeks of September to avoid some of the peak summer crowds. We were surprised that some of the sites around Ireland were already closing for the Season (not just limited hours) even in September! Some restaurants were closed already as well. No matter when you travel, bring an umbrella or at least a good water proof rain coat as it will rain, and check to see that the windshield wipers function ok and that the solution to clean the windshield is full before you exit the parking lot at the airport! We had one day of sunshine out of 14 and they said that day was the warmest day in Ireland all year! They told us in Dingle that the only sunny days they had were in May. There is a reason why the rolling hillsides of Ireland are so green!
  17. In summary: The Republic of Ireland is a place I wanted to visit since I was a young girl. It did not disappoint. The terrain is diverse from serene places like Glendalough tucked away in the Wicklow Mountains, to some of the colorful seaside villages like Kinsale and Cobh in County Cork, Roundstone in the rugged Connemara area of County Galway and Westport on Clew Bay in County Mayo, to the spectacular vistas from the Ring of Kerry, Dingle and Beara Peninsulas, the lively traditional music emanating from the colorful pubs in Towns like Dingle, Doolin, Galway City and the Temple Bar area of Dublin, the unique landscape of the Burren in County Clare and of course the warm, friendly people throughout the Republic of Ireland. The roads less traveled in the midland area like Roscommon brought us into contact with some truly amazing people as well. We wouldn't have seen someone rethatching their roof or seen how they stack the peat blocks to dry in the fields, or met some of the most facinating, informative individuals of our trip if we hadn't ventured off the beaten track inland. Take the roads less travelled you will be glad you did!