As an Irish friend who has driven abroad quite a bit remarks, It’s not the driving on the wrong side of the road that’s the problem; it’s everything else. There is a lot of everything else here. there’s the roundabouts. In theory they are brilliant, far better than four-way stops, and once I reacquaint myself with the simple rule, look right (those coming from your right have the right of way) I appreciate their simplicity. The best part is that, if you aren’t certain which exit to take you can circle around more than once while you explore your options. This can make other drivers crazy but you can just signal and keep going around until you find your way. There are also an awful lot of roundabouts; it’s not at all unusual to go through a dozen or more of them when you enter or leave a town or make your way to the motorway.
The motorways are astonishing. They are wide, clear, with huge signs and miles of notice about exits. They are impeccably maintained and nearly everyone drives them correctly, that is, driving in the left-hand lane and using the second lane only to pass. The occasional tolls seem eminently worth it, although I was taught the first year I was here to avoid an expensive one between Kildare, where I stay, and Dublin by getting off at the exit before the tool booth and driving across country, advice I have followed ever since.
The worst part of roundabouts is that, at least for me, they are not at all intuitive, and I invariably make several mistakes when I first arrive, cutting off drivers who have the right of way or entering too slowly and thereby throwing the other cars out of rhythm. This year I have also noticed that there is a new tendency on the part of some drivers to simply flout the rules, stare at you and pull out in front of you.
Nearly all of my driving is in rural Ireland, where a main road is one where you don’t know everyone who goes by and you can pass each other easily; a road is where you can just squeeze by a car coming in the other direction if both of you head left and drive along the edge; and a lane is where, if you meet an oncoming car, one of you has to pull into a layby or driveway or, in worst case, reverse until you find somewhere to pull off. When you have to slow down on any road to assure safe passage for both vehicles you always salute the driver in a one-handed wave. In fact, waving is always the safest way to go here, since on these roads most people will assume they know you; otherwise why would you be travelling on the road?
Tractors can be daunting: You stay behind them in the knowledge that their farm can’t be too far away and hope that they pull over to let you by when they can. Most do. Tractors appear on town streets as well as on the roads; it’s not at all unusual to have to follow one through Edenderry, joining a long string of cars that just have to put up with the pace since there’s nowhere for the tractor to go and no way to pass it.
Roadworks, Funeral in Progress, Race in Progress, hedgerow trimming. Walkers in bright green vests who have nowhere to go but on the road itself since there are rarely berms. Increasingly there are cyclists. And this time of year the road is also alive with turf carts. The carts are low and open and are filled with a mound of peat cut into neat blocks. A few blocks are always falling off, so the road is dotted with dark brown piles that look like animal waste but have a much more pleasant odor. Peat is harvested in the summer, when it is at its driest, and although most bogs are now protected there is a certain amount of harvest allowed. The area where I stay in the Midlands is full of bogs, and several are still active. Long-time residents are allowed their allotment of turf, and there are plenty of houses in Ireland that still burn turf as nearly their only source of heat unless they can afford electric space heaters. You always know when you are driving on a bog road. The road is stick straight and flat, but the bog has its revenge: It is a living, breathing primordial thing, and it lifts the macadam in tidal waves that cause you to bounce from small peak to small peak. There is a distinct road sign that warns you of these waves.
The nature of the turf bogs is such that animals are not grazing there (not much to eat, and the domestic animals would sink) but all through Ireland animals are a major road worry for drivers. In Tipperary last week I came upon a temporary roadblock to allow cows to cross at milking time. These happen a lot; the cows need to move between their grassy pastures and the milking parlors and the only way to get there is via the roads. At this crossing there was a handmade sign with big red letters, Slow Down. A few yards further up the farmer was just herding the first of his cows across to the barn. When the last of them had crossed I drove off but decided to circle around and photograph the sign. By now the cows were walking quite nonchalantly single-file up the path in a sort of contented way that suggested they knew where they were headed and were quite happy to follow their habit. I got out the iPhone again, and this time the farmer came up beside me and said, Never seen a cow before, eh? There is a great sense of dry humor here.
As you move up into the mountains in Tipperary, the cows are replaced by sheep, which can graze on the rough hills and, since they don’t need to be milked, can largely be left to their own devices. There are fences but they seem largely ceremonial; the sheep wander freely in the ditches and on the roads. Generally they are skittish and will move out of your way as you drive by. The first evening Breda and I drove into the Knockmealdown hills to walk we encountered many sheep along the way, and when she turned one corner there on the road was a huge one-horned ram, basking in the late sun and not at all interested in moving. He gave us a scornful stare as Breda inched her way around him, then kept driving up the mountain.