Southern Ireland: To Drive or To Be Driven?

The view from Slieve Binnian (Silent Valley Reservoir), County Down, Northern Ireland.
The view from Slieve Binnian (Silent Valley Reservoir), County Down, Northern Ireland.

By Geanie Roake

To drive or be driven, that was the question when I decided to tour Southern Ireland. Should I do the “typical tourist” thing and sign up for a bus trip? Or be independent, and strike out on my own in a rental car.

Self-driven tours allow you to set your own itinerary, but are you ready to drive on the left side of the road? In Southern Ireland
Self-driven tours allow you to set your own itinerary, but are you ready to drive on the left side of the road?

Unfortunately, my impressions of bus tours were not very positive. I had visions of being shuffled from one tourist trap to another by a cranky guide with an incomprehensible accent. Driving, on the other hand, held it’s own perils.

People in Ireland drive on the “wrong” side, and their farm animals tend to materialize without warning in front of your car. Of course, driving would give me the freedom to see exactly what I wanted, but that was only if I dared to pry my eyes from the road.

Consults Experienced Travelers

The entire outcome of my once-in-a-lifetime trip rested on this decision, and since I was not an experienced traveler, I decided to consult others who were. Their opinions were many and varied.

“If you’ve never been to Ireland before,” said a travel agent friend, “take the bus. It’s easier and more relaxing.”

Upon hearing this, a co-worker recoiled in horror. “Don’t take a bus tour! It costs more and you’re stuck with strangers!”

“But gas is $8.00 a gallon in Ireland,” said another. “You should go on a walking tour.”

After listening to the experts I decided I was more confused than ever. The time had come to call in the big guns, the heavy-duty problem-solving artillery. This decision called for… a list of pros and cons.

To Drive, (Self Guided Car Tours) Pros:

The author (shown with her mother Georgia Kehr) opted to leave the driving to the CIE tourbus drivers.
The author (shown with her mother Georgia Kehr) opted to leave the driving to the CIE tour bus drivers.

1. For self-drive tours, the advantages are many, but flexibility rates high on the list. When you happen onto a breathtaking view or an intriguing photo op, rather than flying by and incurring whiplash from gawking at what’s behind you, you can stop. You can spend the whole day in a particular spot. You obviously won’t cover as many miles this way, but the experience will be your own. You can do what interests you, even if it’s not on a list of must-see stops.

2. When you travel in small groups, you are much more likely to interact with local people. Large bus tours understandably send the natives running for the hills, but many are quite willing to engage in conversation with a lone traveler or two. By getting to know the people, you come to understand the culture, and get a more accurate picture of what a place is really like

3. You get to choose the company you keep. Whether it’s friends or family, you know these people, and (hopefully) know what to expect from them. Traveling together can, if done right, be the basis of memories that will last a lifetime.

4. Self-drive tours are also more economical. This depends of course on the lodgings and restaurants you choose, but many tour companies offer incredible rates on car tour packages. Sometimes you can find combination deals when you book flights to Ireland.

Southern Ireland’s climate is mild, and unless you’re one who melts in the rain (don’t go to Southern Ireland if this is the case) you should have an enjoyable trip any time of the year.

To Drive, Cons:

The scenic Village of Cong was made famous by the filming of 'The Quiet Man' in 1952. Southern Ireland
The scenic Village of Cong was made famous by the filming of ‘The Quiet Man’ in 1952.

1. While spending time in Southern Ireland, I overheard one of the locals discussing out-of-town drivers. “You can spot them a mile away,” he said, ” weaving down the middle of the road, with a crumpled map in one hand, and Rosary beads clutched in the other.”

The art of driving on the left is a skill more easily acquired by some than others. Needless to say, the complications spiral off the chart if you’ve tried to save money (approximately $16 dollars a day) by renting a car with standard transmission. Even the most adaptable drivers have an adrenalin jolt or two in the beginning. So keep in mind, that this may not be the most relaxing way to go.

2. A driver is also at a disadvantage when it comes to sightseeing. While others are gasping at the scenery, you are required to keep your eyes on the road. Also, you’ll need to be on the lookout for unexpected roadside impediments – wandering flocks of sheep for example.

3. Be aware that the roads in Ireland are narrow, and if you meet a tour bus going the opposite direction you will be expected to get out of the way, or back up to a place where the less maneuverable vehicle can get around you.

4. Road signs can be confusing. Distances shown with a km following it are in kilometers, while those with nothing following it are in miles. Most signs are in English but not all. There are Gaelic speaking areas in the South where what appears on the road signs will not match your map.

Should you find yourself hopelessly lost you can either enjoy the spontaneity of the experience, or dissolve into tears. The latter isn’t really necessary though, since you can always find a tour bus, and follow them to the next point of interest.

To Be Driven, (Guided Bus tours) Pros:

1. For those who haven’t the time or the confidence to plan a complicated overseas vacation, a bus tour may be the perfect solution. Simply browse through a catalog, or travel company website, choose your preferred itinerary, and sign on the dotted line. From that point on, everything from food and lodging, to entertainment, is taken care of. All accommodations are carefully researched and of excellent quality. All you have to do is appear at the appropriate departure point, and get on the bus.

The author met a lot of new friends on the bus.
The author met a lot of new friends on the bus.

2. Your guide is well-versed in the history and details of the area, and it’s fun to have someone along who knows all the answers. The tour directors also know where to stop for lunch, where to find the best shopping deals, and who to steer you away from when it comes to scamming artists and hucksters.

3. If you’re a people person, traveling with a group is ideal. There are many new faces to get acquainted with, and a variety of opinions and insights to enjoy. As your trip begins, you are traveling with strangers, but if you’re lucky, by the time it’s over you have evolved into a group of friends.

4. You can sleep. If you’re suffering from jet lag and can’t stay awake for another minute, you don’t have to. You can doze off without risking anyone’s life, and you still arrive promptly at your intended destination.

To Be Driven, Cons:

1. Your tour itinerary is planned to please the majority. If one of the stops doesn’t interest you, you get to participate anyway. Initially, of course, you have many different itineraries to choose from, but nothing is ever going to be “perfect” unless you plan it yourself.

2. Because of the convenience, guided tours tend to be more expensive. Traveling in the off-season, and comparison-shopping will help keep the cost down, though you never want to choose a company simply because they’re the least expensive. As with any decision of this nature, do your homework and be sure the group you pick is reputable.

3. On bus tours the schedule is important. The concept of 40 people traveling together works only if everyone cooperates. Toss a couple of non-conformists into the pot and the carefully laid plans began to unravel.

If you are one who becomes so absorbed that you lose track of time, or who simply don’t care that 39 people are sitting on the bus waiting for you to finish shopping, you will not be the most popular person on your tour. With this in mind, you may want to think about other forms of transportation.

The author is shown with Daniel Moroney, Barry Lyndh and Mike Dowd of the band Tua Tha at Kate Kearney's cottage in the Gap of Dunloe.
The author is shown with Daniel Moroney, Barry Lyndh and Mike Dowd of the band Tua Tha at Kate Kearney’s cottage in the Gap of Dunloe.

At Last, A Decision

After careful consideration of all the pros and cons, I was finally able to make a decision. I did not like the idea of traveling on someone else’s timetable, and there were places I wanted to see which were not included in the guided tours, but I ultimately chose to go that route anyway. The deciding factor – fear.

I am not known for my driving skills on a good day. As far as I was concerned, the combination of jet lag, and driving on the left, added up to a recipe for certain for disaster. To the great relief of the people of Ireland, and their livestock, I decided to leave the driving to someone else.

It was a good decision. Who knows what kind of experience, good or bad, I might have had on my own, but the bus trip turned out to be great fun. I signed on with CIE International, for their 10-day “Irish Welcome” tour.
Getting Acquainted

I traveled with a group of 40 people, ranging in age from 15 to 80, whom I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. Everyone was on their good behavior and there were no obvious incidents, aside from one case of carsickness, which happily occurred just as we were pulling into the hotel parking lot.

Our driver/guide, Tom Keane was charming, did not have an incomprehensible accent, and was very good at the logistics of moving 40 people around the countryside. The schedule was well organized, with plenty of free time, and we saw some fascinating places that I would never have known about on my own.

Best of all, when the trip was over I felt totally relaxed, and ready to start planning my next adventure.

Geanie Roake

Geanie Roake is an author, mother, and librarian. Her motto is “Have money, will travel.” 

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