It is one of the clichés about Ireland that driving across the Emerald Isle can be dangerous. (The other cliché is that the Irish really do have a drinking problem, but that’s another article.) Certainly when driving in Ireland, all basic operating assumptions for Americans cease. The Irish drive on the left side, not the right, and the steering wheel is on the opposite side. One is always getting in on the wrong side, or looking the wrong way. One tends to hug either the divider line or the shoulder, if there is one, because of the different perspective
An American golfer in Galway’s Jurys Inn warned me about bad roads; what the Irish called a major road Americans would call a narrow two-lane highway—if one was lucky enough to get a two-lane paved road. The back roads were more like cow paths, with grassy fields on either side. A driver could easily slide off the road and roll over. The turns were often blind and sharp. Roads often weren’t repaired or repaved due to the ongoing search for artifacts from Ireland’s past.
“It’s worth it for the golf,” my fellow Yank insisted. “The courses aren’t groomed, of course.”
While in Galway, I rented a car to visit two second cousins living in Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon. My grandfather listed this small quaint town as his residence before leaving for America in 1907. We enjoyed traveling by train, but there is no way to get to Ballaghaderreen except by driving. (It is pronounced “bally-dreen” and means “the place of the oaks” though the great oaks disappeared long ago.) One takes the highway out of Galway toward Charlestown and then drives east toward the small town of bars, shops, residences and an impressive cathedral.
In the car rental office, the gentleman seemed puzzled when I asked what numbered roads to take.
“Don’t bother with numbers. Just ask for the town.”
“The map has numbered roads.”
“Sure, we don’t drive by numbers, here.”
Driving on the left side of the road takes some practice, and sitting on the right side is also strange. The road to Charlestown wasn’t bad, but there was a great deal of construction along the way. After lunch in Charlestown, we took a narrower road to Ballaghaderreen, stopping at a place called Durkins, a bar-restaurant with rooms for rent. We took one above the pub.
With my two elderly cousins, Mary and Anne, we visited an overgrown graveyard with many Celtic crosses and familiar family names. It was a moving experience to find the weathered headstone of my great grandparents, John and Mary Corrigan, who died in 1919 and 1921. We had the luxury of a professional driver, a tall older gentleman who knew the back roads. The next afternoon, however, we drove ourselves to find Doocastle where my grandmother lived. The owner of Durkins gave us directions, smiling.
“Doocastle in Sligo? Just turn right at Davy’s Pub. Sure, you’ll find it.”
We drove through the Irish countryside and soon got lost. We stopped and asked directions of an English woman working in a garden and she guaranteed we would probably get lost again. She mentioned a crossroads. Some Irish farmers were curious.
“Why do you want to go there?”
One of the men could have been my grandfather by his rugged appearance.
All along the Irish back roads were signs that read “Stop the carnage” or “45 people killed in the county this year.” In Doocastle—a crossroads—we found Kennedy’s pub which was ironic since my grandmother’s maiden name was Kennedy. The closed bar had warning signs about driving in the spacious parking lot. Was the lot more dangerous than the winding narrow unlit roads? What happened when two vehicles met? Who backed down? If an accident occurred, how easy was it for rescue vehicles to reach and navigate the area?
After leaving the bar, finding the church where my grandmother was baptized in 1891 proved impossible. (The car didn’t have a GPS.) The green wet countryside with its narrow roads provided a lovely bucolic scene after a light rain, but it was also a labyrinth. I did not want to be driving at night. The next morning, we said good-bye to my cousins and drove back to Galway to drop off the car, listen to the street buskers, have a few pints if so inclined, and in the morning—take the train to Dublin and the airport.
There is a basic suggestion, here. If one plans to visit Ireland, rent a car for the major roads but use a professional driver for the back country. Actor Spalding Gray never completely recovered from an automobile accident in Ireland. The terrible reputation of Irish citizen drivers and their many traffic fatalities is a cliché backed by evidence.
Michael Corrigan taught speech and English at Idaho State University and is the author of Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, These Precious Hours and Mulligan.