Learning To Drive On The Left In Ireland

Tractors And Jarveys And Sheep, Oh My—Driving In Ireland

If driving in Ireland were to be distilled down to one word, that word would be: Relax.

Getting used to driving on the left is important, of course. But there are other considerations, as well, road hazards that you don’t usually encounter every day in most of the United States, including one-lane roads with traffic going both ways, tractors, pony-driven jaunting carts, and sheep. The Irish way of handling these obstacles is one of good-natured courtesy, and a competitive, hyperactive driving style is out of place—which is a really good thing.

First things first. When you’re starting out, before you even get to all the odd things on the road, the best advice I can offer is to put a sticky note on the dashboard with the mantra, “We Drive On The Left Here.” I am completely serious. Whenever you get into the driver’s seat, this reminder will start you off correctly, and soon the mantra will automatically come to mind at crucial moments. Even now, long after the sticky note has been discarded, that timely thought keeps me from making serious mistakes.

When you begin driving on the left, for a while you’ll wonder where the left side of the car is. Your spatial awareness, so confident when you’re on the right side of the road, will be turned upside down, and you’ll either drive too close to the edge of the road (tricky when it’s narrow and there are lots of thorny brambles on the roadside, itching to scratch your car doors) or too far in the middle of the road (risking side-view mirror collisions with oncoming vehicles). Ouch on both counts.

But relax. A few days driving on quiet side roads will improve your confidence and your judgment, and you’ll be on the way to skillful driving on the left. No more white knuckles. The world will be yours… kind of.

It seems unfair to pile on the obstacles just when you’re feeling good about what you’re doing, but Kerry, Limerick, and West Cork, for example, the counties where I have driven most, are rural. That means sharing the road with tractors, designed to carry rolls of silage for farm cows or to tow big pieces of farm equipment. If you’re lucky, they’ll whizz along at about 30 miles per hour. If not, they’ll be moving a bit more slowly. But tractor drivers are aware if a line of cars is building behind them on a two-lane road and, if they can, will pull off the road to let the cars pass. If they can’t pull over and there is oncoming traffic or you’re in a no-passing zone, you have no choice but to shrug and slow down and wait for the tractor to turn off the main road. It will eventually.

Jarveys are another matter. It requires skill enough to maneuver around a tractor with one driver. But with jarveys, pony-led jaunting carts, there are the cart, pony, driver, and six happy tourists enjoying the gorgeous scenery around Killarney to be aware of. Horse-drawn vehicles have the right-of-way in Ireland, and I can say from experience that jarvey drivers use that right with courtesy and care—and most drivers respond in kind. If the jarveyman signals a car to please wait at an intersection or traffic circle, the car waits.

Now, I’m a city-bred animal-lover, and I’m always charmed to meet a flock of sheep and lambs on the rural back roads being herded by a farmer to another pasture because the road is the only way to get them there. When this happens, you’ll discover for yourself that passing these flocks is not an option. Slow down—and if you have to stop, then stop. It’s only for a minute or three. More startling, though, is encountering a group of animals that have escaped their field through a hole in the fence and are panicking on the road. Again, you will probably have to stop until they either cross the road or pass the car. An impatient driver who blows the horn only makes it worse.

Once you and the sheep have survived and safely reached your destination, you can park the car and go for a cup of tea, right? Parking the car sounds like such a simple task. It can’t be worse than the sheep. Ummm… I need to tell you something…

Parking lots in Ireland can be challenging and rather fun. The individual spaces are not what we’re used to in the States. They are narrower and shorter here, meaning precision parking is required to get in the middle of the space with enough room on either side to open the doors and forward enough for your tail lights not to be clipped. But there’s another curious feature that I’ve never encountered before: the angle of the parking spaces. They are angled a bit less steeply than the spaces we’re familiar with, so you can’t just effortlessly glide in. If you don’t make the turn into the space just right, you end up angled across the parking space instead of straight in it. If the cars on both sides are properly parked, your car looks silly. On the other hand, it’s not unusual to see an entire row of cars parked crookedly—it takes just one car to start things off, and the rest follow. It’s comforting to see that you aren’t the only one who has been defeated by a parking space.

The point of telling you about these quirky features of Irish roads is not to put you off coming here—not at all. It’s to demonstrate that, even with challenges that might frustrate many drivers, there is an inherent courtesy in driving in Ireland, an overall acceptance that tractors, jarveys, and sheep happen. A spirit of give-and-take, where slower drivers move over to let faster drivers pass and drivers yield to each other on narrow, single-lane roads. Get around obstacles safely if you can, but don’t fret if you can’t.

Smile, relax, and remember that, here in Ireland, it’s all good.

Donna Deeks


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