The first step toward driving in Ireland is to ride in the front passenger seat with an Irish driver. When you’ve done that enough so you don’t cringe and lean sideways every time an oncoming car seems to be HEADED DIRECTLY FOR YOU, then you might be ready to shift to the left side and drive.
The Irish very thoughtfully provide these signs on the main roads leaving airports. By the time you stop giggling at the mental image of Hogan’s Heroes’ Sergeant Shultz yelling “Achtung! Drive on Left!” you’ve relaxed. Until you realize there’s no center line on your small highway and you’re actually back on the right hand side. But don’t worry, the Irish are generally very patient with dumb Americans and will just nod and continue when you’re finally back on the
right correct side of the line.
That center line turns out to be very important. It reminds you of the correct side even when you’re exhausted from jet lag, driving two hours home from the Shannon Airport. It helps you not graze oncoming cars as you develop the finer skills of staying in your lane without hitting the hedge on the left.
The center line can, however, be misleading. Usually, a slow-moving car or fast-moving tractor will pull to the left, driving half-shoulder and half-lane so you can pass. But if not, It is not unknown for the Irish to change l-i-n-e to l-a-n-e and go anyway. The N-71, for example, is a good road, traveled by vehicles of all speeds between Cork city and Bandon. On one particular straight stretch, drivers will often straddle the center line to create a center lane to pass someone, even though there is oncoming traffic. The oncoming traffic, seeing this, just casually slides to the left side of their own lane, which leaves room for everyone.
Another step to becoming a proficient driver in Ireland is to become coordinated enough to shift with your left hand. Some car equipment is just reversed from our Stateside norms, like where the steering wheel is. You must be alert to these things. A certain someone got into the left front seat and tried to put the key in the ignition before she realized there was no steering wheel filling the space in front of her – after four months of driving in Ireland! (No, it wasn’t me. I promise. Pinky-swear, even. Now hush and let me get back to shifting.)
The problem with shifting is that while a European gear shift is identical to ours, it’s muscle memory that we use to shift, not logic. And it just doesn’t feel right to pull the stick closer to your body to shift into high gear. So you set out, toodling safely along down the road, concentrating on logic when you shift. So far, so good.
But some of us just can’t concentrate on two things at once. See, two other things that are on the opposite side are stop signs and traffic lights. And when someone stopped for a red light and the Irish driver behind her honked because it was the other lane’s red light and she should have been going instead of stopping, she got flustered and somehow kept putting the car in 5th gear instead of 1st. Which made the Irish driver honk again, which made her more flustered. We won’t mention who that was.
On the other hand, some people are spatially challenged. Muscle memory only goes so far, and doesn’t seem to translate to mirror-image distances. Someone’s husband couldn’t shift from 3rd to 4th without landing back in 2nd, or grinding gears horribly. Which someone never cringed at, of course.
Needless to say, when we picked out our own car (as opposed to the rental we had for a month), we chose an automatic transmission.
Quick answers to commonly asked questions (at least among our friends and family):
- Yes, the brake and gas pedal are the same as in the US. You don’t have to switch feet.
- You can drive in Ireland with your US driver’s license for a short term (a month, I think, but don’t quote me). If you’re going to stay for a long period, go to a AAA office before your trip and get an International Driving Permit. Costs about $15 plus a passport-type photo, and that plus your regular license will cover you for a year at a time.
- Many insurance companies cover you in England and Northern Ireland, but not the Republic of Ireland. Find out before you go, and if yours doesn’t, get the insurance with the rental car, which places like SCVH never fail to provide.
- You want to know about roundabouts? Ah, they’re grand. And complicated enough they need their own post. As do country roads and villages with legal parking half way into the road. Watch this space!
Now I have a question for you. My first Irish blog post seemed to be a great hit, and many of you are looking forward to more. For which I thank you! But while there is much I could blather on about, is there anything in particular you’re interested in? Food? Castles? Weather? Strange things people say? Leave your questions and suggestions in the comment box and I’ll see what I can do. Thanks for stopping by!