In short, many of Ireland’s roads are winding and narrow and they don’t always have the best of surfaces.
Although roads have improved and new motorways built between major population centres, you will find that once you leave motorways and national primary roads (which you will) standards can drop quite abruptly.
Road Types in Ireland
There are broadly speaking 5 main road types in Ireland:
- Motorways [freeways] run between cities and are good quality roads. They are designated on signs by the letter M followed by a number. You will see the M50 if you pick up your car at Dublin Airport – but don’t think that means there are 49 other motorways!
- National Primary Roads link larger towns together. Some are, at least in part, dual carriageways [divided highways], but most are not. They are identified by the letter N followed by a number from 1-33.
- National Secondary Roads link smaller towns to each other or to larger towns. They all single carriageway and they are identified by the letter N and a number between 51 and 82.
- Regional Roads link small towns, they tend to be quite narrow and winding in places. They are identified by the letter R followed by three digit number.
- Unclassified Roads are small and often finish in a dead end, such as a road to a beach, a pier or to isolated farms or dwellings. They are not identified by numbers. They are an adventure – you never know what to expect!
In spite of the fact that there are letters and numbers assigned to roads, you will not get much joy if you ask a local for directions to, say, the R699 – they will stare at you blankly. If you ask the way from Thomastown to Callan in Kilkenny however, they will be happy to help.
Ireland’s Narrow Winding Roads
I never quite understood what people meant about narrow roads until I had driven in the USA and on the continent of Europe. It is not so much that the roads are narrow, though they often are, but that there is little or no hard shoulder and the verges, hedges and walls encroach onto the road far more than they do elsewhere.
While the road in the video is exceptional – and well worth driving for the amazing views and the adrenaline rush – there are lots of winding roads, where you have little to no idea of what’s around the next bend. Be vigilant for signs – if you are on an already winding road and there is a sign warning of bad bends ahead, you know they really will be bad!
The best advice is to take your time and to be as courteous to other drivers as you’d wish them to be to you. This means pulling into the left to give oncoming cars more space if you have the means to do so, not occupying more than your fair share of the road and keeping a good distance from any cars in front of you at all times.
On the upside, on narrow roads in areas frequented by tourists, the locals are aware of the difficulty you may be having and likely to give you plenty of space – as much from concern for their own welfare as politeness!
National Secondary Roads (N51-N82)
This photograph was taken on the N78, a typical National Secondary Road, between Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny and Athy, Co Kildare. As you can see the “hard shoulder” is all of, oh, 9 inches wide and the hedge reaches out at least that far.
This is something you will encounter often. The lane width too is about what you can expect on a secondary road, a type of road on which visitors will spend a lot of their time.
Regional Roads (R)
These are the narrowest roads you are likely to drive on and can be quite an experience! They are generally quite narrow and winding – if you see signs warning you of bends or zig-zag roads ahead, pay heed, they really mean it.
The two main hazards here are locals, who know the roads very well and drive them at breakneck speed, and agricultural machinery traveling at about 10 miles an hour, tempting you to overtake.
The only safe way to proceed is slowly and with caution – there could be cattle on the road or a tractor crossing around that next bend. Pull in (or at least slow right down when the road ahead is clear) to allow impatient locals to pass. Don’t try to overtake slow traffic, settle in behind it, relax and enjoy the views.
Fortunately these are often very pretty roads, such as the one on the left, which is in Co Clare.
Are the Irish Good Drivers?
Hmm. None of this is intended to scare you – most visitors who drive in Ireland go home intact, if chastened by the experience.
About 40% of drivers on Irish roads have never passed a driving test. Yes, they are driving legally and are (for the most part) fully insured, but on what is called a provisional license. This is really intended to be a license that allows someone to drive a car while accompanied in order to learn to drive but, for reasons too boring to go into, a situation has evolved where people can renew these licenses pretty much indefinitely and drive as though on a full license.
To keep getting these licenses drivers must take a test periodically. However if they fail, which many do, they can just say a polite thank you to the tester, get in their cars and drive happily away, in spite of the fact that they just tested as not being of sufficient standard to so do.
Whether it is as a result of this or of widespread poor road conditions, poor enforcement of traffic laws, a combination of these or something else entirely, Ireland tends to feature close to the top of European league tables for both road accidents and road deaths.
So, to paraphrase someone or other, let’s be careful out there!