Steep cliffs along Irish seaside

Driving Miss Marian: Across Ireland by Rental Car

A common joke goes that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. Ireland, too. Another difference is driving on the right side of the road. Or should I say correct?

While this blog focuses on rail and sea travel, sometimes hiring a car is worthwhile to explore more distant sights. Budget travelers can really make this work by sharing a vehicle, especially if someone can drive a stick shift!

In 1994, I was in the midst of six weeks of sabbatical leave from a stressful computer job. My boss called to offer an expense-paid consulting trip to Ireland. Hesitant at first, the temptation to visit the home of my ancestors was too great. I agreed to go. Traveling with me was Marian, a co-worker from Cleveland who also had Irish roots. In fact, her relatives still lived in a tiny town in southwest Ireland called Cahersiveen.

After finishing our work assignment at a factory near Dublin’s airport, we planned a short holiday to visit her relatives. Over lunch, Marian told me about her grandmother, who in 1912 purchased a one-way ticket to America on the Titanic. Yes, THAT Titanic. Was she a survivor? Incredibly, yes. She had arrived five hours late to the Irish port of Queenstown (now Cobh) and thankfully missed the boat! This unique tale from her family history got me thinking. Would we have ever met if her grandma had boarded the ship in Ireland, Titanic’s last port-of-call? Quite a thought to ponder.

Malahide Castle near Dublin, occupied by the Talbot family from 1250-1973

Our local company hired a silver Rover car for the next leg of our journey. Upon delivery to our hotel in Malahide, a beautiful green suburb just north of Dublin, I noticed it had a five-speed manual transmission. And the steering wheel was on the opposite side. In America, I had learned to drive using a much easier automatic. I asked Marian if she could drive a stick shift.

“Nope,” she said.

“What about helping me navigate?”

“Well, I’m blind in one eye and not good with maps.”

This was going to be quite an adventure.

passport stamp to Ireland

After a big Irish breakfast of fried potatoes, eggs and sausages, I hesitantly took my right-hand seat at the wheel. It was 8 o’clock on a gray Wednesday morning, the hour of heavy morning commuter traffic. Streaky rain slickened the road and quickened my pulse. We began heading south toward Dublin, Ireland’s capital and largest city.

Though a bypass highway has since been completed, no such route existed at the time. And even if there had been, my driving and navigation skills were being put to an extreme test. Rush-hour traffic, drizzling rain, a new country, unfamiliar car, a stick shift and driving on the wrong side – at least the pedals were in the right place. I don’t think I could have worked a clutch correctly with my other foot!

View of the River LIffey in Dublin, Ireland

We soon found ourselves in the city center, searching for signs pointing toward the M7 motorway. Luck was with us, as I managed to avoid any accidents. We spotted the River Liffey, a landmark from our previous day trip on the DART suburban train. We were now in the heart of downtown. Crossing the river, we turned right through the old city streets and eventually found the M7.

Once outside the city, the rain slackened. The Rover became actually fun to drive. I did find myself having to look down to make sure I put it in the right gear, as left-handed shifting took some getting used to. Locating the windshield wipers, light switch and heater were relatively easy. On the radio, folk singer Christy Moore crooned about a crazy driver crashing into Kerry sheepdogs with his Firestone tires. Heading for County Kerry ourselves, I prayed not to hit any animals myself!

We arrived in Limerick city around lunchtime, stopping briefly for a quick bite to eat in the town center. Compared to navigating Dublin in the rain, it was a piece of cake! Continuing onward to Tralee, we curved onto the scenic Ring of Kerry roadway. Salty sea air wafted through the car’s vents as we skirted the shores of Dingle Bay.

View of 15th century castle “over the water” near Cahersiveen

Cahersiveen, our destination, lies on one of the many jagged peninsulas that make up County Kerry in southwest Ireland. Here craggy cliffs and jumbled rocks extend like giant ogre’s fingers toward the stormy Atlantic. To the north is the Dingle peninsula; south is the even wilder Beara peninsula. We were happy to simply arrive safely, park the car, and enjoy tea with Marian’s relatives.

Her cousin, also named Marian, introduced us to her husband and mother-in-law, who was ALSO named Marian! Yes, three Marians. They treated us to a delightful dinner that evening in nearby Waterville, even offering to drive the Rover for us.

View of Waterville from the Ring of Kerry

Waterville was the site of the first transatlantic cable connecting Europe to North America, which operated from 1884-1962. I remember it more for the amazing local oysters. My other memory was the laughter shared with these new friends, especially when trying to remember which of the three Marians to address in the dinner conversation!

Reflecting on this experience, I have some wisdom to share with fellow travelers.

  1. Learn to drive a stick shift car.
  2. Learn to read a road map.
  3. Consider hiring a driver.
  4. Navigate large cities using public transport or taxis.
  5. If you want to go farther, go together. And share the laughter.

Happy motoring!

The author with Marian near her grandmother’s old house. Photo by one of the other two Marians!

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