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Ireland has seen massive changes to its long distance road networks over the past few years and there are now full motorway (expressway) connections from Dublin to Cork, Belfast, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. Many other major and some minor roads were also significantly upgraded. However, if you want to really see the countryside and the scenic beauty spots, you will have to stray off the motorways and major routes.
Driving in Ireland's rural scenic areas is like re-living high school driver's education. Those hazards that seemed to only live in the safety movies will pop up every day in Ireland. Sheep quickly lose their charm in middle of your road after coming 'round a blind bend.
Country roads are narrow with little to no run-off; stone walls are frequent. An oncoming tour bus can seem massive and unsettling. Add factors like changeable weather, tractors, livestock, slick and/or poorly maintained road surfaces, unfamiliar directions, piloting an unfamiliar European rental car, inexperience with left side driving, and fatigue if you've just arrived... and it all adds up to take it easy!
When you plan your itinerary, budget driving time and distance at 35 miles per hour (56 kph); add time for getting a little lost, stopping to stretch the legs and snap pics. Help the driver with maps and directions. If traveling other than summertime (when days are long), check a newspaper for when sunset is and plan to arrivie an hour prior. Your passengers and your own nerves will thank you. Plan your itinerary with a day or two without the car.
If you plan to do some pubbing (of course you do!) consider proximity of accommodation. Stay in town or within walking/taxi distance. After some finger-wagging by the EU and national campaigns to improve road safety, Ireland has, this decade, really cracked down on alcohol and driving. Don't do it. Enquire at your accommodation about taxis and take the cabbie's business card so you can arrange a lift home. Ireland's blood alcohol limit is 0.05% which in-line with most of Continental Europe but significantly lower than the UK and much of the United States and Canada. Random breath-testing of drivers is carried out, so, drink-drivers beware!
There has also been a crack-down on other bad driving behaviour, particularly speeding, so to avoid a heafty fine and an unpleasant encounter with the law, pay careful attention to your speedometer. Garda (Police) speed checks and automated speed cameras are used extensively.
These measures, combined with major road infrastructure improvements, have made Ireland the sixth safest place to drive in Europe, and (despite the best efforts of the local sheep) significantly safer than much of the United States.
Note to fellow Americans: Book your rental car from home online because it's much less expensive and you'lI pay in dollars. Before actually booking your car, try to anchor Dublin or another big city at the start or the end of the trip so you can get free of the car ASAP. Use Google, MapQuest, ViaMichelin, etc. to pinpoint drop-off locations of your rental company - and make sure they're open/available! For example, not all rental firms accommodate drop-off at all airports. And don't assume just because a rental firm's airport office is open 24/7 that the satellite location downtown will be just as convenient. These things will affect either your itinerary or your choice of rental firm. Select a car that suits your needs and try to enforce among your travel mates, prior to departure, some suitcase size discipline. A good rule of thumb is that a so-called four person car is really, with addition of luggage, a three-traveler car. If your party's a foursome, consider two smaller cars. The not-so-preferable alternative could be one vehicle large enough to hold four people... and all that luggage... on narrow Irish roads... and now this has come full circle! Safe travels!