On the road in Ireland

Photo by Brian Douglas

If you are anything like me (or some of my relatives), your first experience driving on Irish roads is a generally hair raising one. Coming from Europe or the U.S., just handling a right-hand steering wheel on the left side of the road can be a challenge, not to mention shifting with the other hand while dodging rain puddles, big buses, sheep and tractors on the tiny narrow roads, and trying to put on the windshield wipers, only to find that you’ve inadvertently used the turn signal instead.

Your Irish rental car doesn’t have to be a mistake. Really. It’s just that most tourists hop of the plane at Dublin Airport and straight into their rental car without thinking things over or learning a little bit about the Irish driving system. The fact of the matter is that Irish roads are a little bit manic and use a hotchpotch system of signage and rules, half of which were adopted from the English and the rest were probably just made up. Irish drivers themselves are no good at driving – up until a couple of years ago, half of the people on the road weren’t even licensed and nowadays most people don’t pass their driving tests the first time around, largely because the system is so manic that it takes two tries for even the most competent of drivers to get it.


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Okay, now that I’ve sufficiently scared you, lets go through a few things you need to know, including some signage that typically trips up tourist drivers.


Photo by Flickr user vavva_92

Reminder to tourist drivers: stay to the left!

First and foremost:

*Driving is done on the left. This one is key, and it means that, if you’re not accustomed to this system, everything will be backwards. You exit the motorway on the left and a left-hand turn is like a right-hand turn where you’re from (hugging the curb).

*The car’s controls are backwards, too. You’ll need to be able to drive a stick shift (some rental car agencies in Ireland do offer automatics) with your left hand and remember that the windshield (known as a “windscreen” in Ireland) wipers are on the left side and the turn signal is on the right – this is easy to mix up thanks to basic muscle memory that will tell you otherwise.

* Get a GPS system. Even if you’re like me and never get lost, you will need a GPS in Ireland. This is largely because, in the city, most streets are one-ways that go in completely convoluted routes, never in the direction you need to get; and in the countryside, the signs point the wrong way and often the maps are just plain wrong (really).

There are a few other basic vocabulary terms you need, especially for the Americans in the audience:

motorway = freeway or major interstate
overtake = pass
junction = intersection
roundabout = rotary
sat nav = GPS system
dual carraigeway = divided highway
give way = yield
roadworks = construction zone
traffic diversion = detour
zebra crossing = pedestrian crossing

Rules of the Road

You’ll also need to know these few basic rules of the road (don’t assume they’re the same as at home):

Irish speed limit sign

Irish speed limit signs are round

* There are speed limits and you should follow them. Speeds are posted in kilometers/hour, and your car’s speedometer also reads in km/hr.

* The fast lane is on the right. If you are going slower than other cars, they will not thank you for staying to the right.

* With that in mind, you should also bear in mind that it’s illegal to pass on the left.

* There is also no left on red, something that differs from American road rules. Otherwise, left turns are just like right turns.

* At roundabouts, yield to traffic coming from the right. Make sure to use your turn signal.  Unless you are exiting at the first left, move to the inside. If you get flustered, keep going around – that’s why its a roundabout.

* There are also an inordinately high number of strange road markings. I don’t have time to go through them all, so you should take a careful look at this website, which explains them. You will get confused otherwise.

Now, perhaps the strangest thing about driving in Ireland for tourists are the abundance of traffic signs, many of which are unfamiliar and difficult to interpret. First, you should know that many Irish road signs are written in both English and Irish – so don’t let that confuse you.

Occasionally, when you are driving through extremely rural parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas), you will find road signs that are only in Irish, but they are few and far between and usually aren’t difficult to interpret.

Photo by Tag Christof

Gaeltacht "yield" sign written in Irish

Below are just a few of the road signs that most often confuse tourist driving in Ireland for the first time. There are a whole host of these examples, and luckily there is a very comprehensive Wikipedia entry on the subject of Irish road signs.

Confusing Irish Road Signs

1. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsThis first example very commonly trips up tourist drivers in Ireland. This sign indicates that there is a roundabout ahead. The three arrows indicate that there are three turns off the roundabout, and the labels around the arrows indicate to where those roads go and their numbers. So, at this roundabout, the arrow going up (which would be the second left off the roundabout) is the R639 to Johnstown. Notice the Irish language listed above the English.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

2. Blue signs indicate that you are on a motorway, in this case, the M8. This particular sign lists the arrow going straight ahead to Cork (stay on the motorway) or to exit left for the R639 to Fermoy. Typically, motorway exits are short ramps that lead to either small roundabouts or stop signs, so be sure to stay alert as you exit and look for a sign like #1 list above, which will probably follow this blue fellow.

There are about a million other smaller signs that you will see and probably be able to interpret with no problem. But just in case:

Motorway EndNo StoppingWrong WayPhoto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1.Motorway ends in 500 meters
2. No stopping
3. Wrong way
4. One Way

by Megan Eaves

About Megan Eaves

Travel writer and wanderluster, Megan Eaves is the author of two travel guidebooks and runs the Irish travel website http://www.irishjaunt.com. Having traveled to 25 countries and lived in five, she is an expert on Ireland, China and the American Southwest, where she grew up. She also often writes about her adventures around Europe, especially London, where she is currently living.


  1. Sam

    Re rules of the road – since when is it illegal to overtake on the right?? That’s the overtaking/fast lane… Typo perhaps??

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  3. @Sam Thanks for reading! That was indeed a typo – thanks for pointing it out. I’ll be sure to change it when I get back to my computer!

  4. Missy Smith

    We actually preferred our book of maps over the GPS, it was the GPS that turned us all around. ;)
    Though, it was quit the adventure driving in Ireland I would definitely do it again (on the last drive my husband said he was going to miss the adventure) and you definitely recommend it, if you enjoy the freedom of seeing the country on your own!

  5. @Missy Smith You must be master navigators! I tend to prefer paper maps to GPS myself, too, but they have gotten me lost more than once in Ireland. And all of my relatives needed their GPS systems on a most recent visit to see us, especially around Dublin. :)

  6. Megan…this is a great piece! Driving in Ireland really is an acquired skill. Two of the many things I have learned in 20+ trips in which I have driven:
    1. if there are other cars on the road, it’s not so hard get accustomed to being on the “other” side of the road. If I make a mistake it’s usually when there are no other cars around and I resort to habit.
    2. Always keep the white line (in the center of the road) on my side of the car (which is the driver’s side, since I’m always driving). This helps when you’re turning onto a new road, or are just plain tired and may resort to habit!
    Don’t get me started on parking!

  7. Thanks so much for stopping by, Elizabeth! Your tips are dead on – other cars help a lot in terms of basic orientation, although they can sometimes make things more complicated, too! Also, watching the white line is key. There were one or two times where I’ve been so worried about not going off into the ditch on the left that I actually crossed the white line into the other lane – luckily there were no oncoming cars!!

  8. Jo

    Just spent a month in Ireland. I was the navigator for our trip. We had only a paper map–no tech, no GPS. We had NO problems. Only thing we did find was when asking a local where a good place of interest was—we did better to have them show up an the map as the way things sounds CERTAINLY are not the way they are written. Ex: Quays. Americans pronounce this just as it looks /kw ayes/ Irish pronounce this as Keyes. Yeah that was a real special time in Cork City.
    Oh and a lot of places are spelled differently on road signs than they are on an actual map.
    Other than that–think left.

  9. @Jo – It’s great to hear that you were able to get around sans GPS. I think you must be an excellent navigator in that case! I definitely know it’s possible (I don’t honestly like using GPS much, personally), but I know a lot of friends & family who have gotten lost in Ireland and very much appreciated their GPS system. Thanks for those tips from your experience!

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  11. When I initially commented I seem to have clicked on the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now
    whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment.
    Is there a way you are able to remove me from that service?

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