January 21, 2005

Yesterday Ireland went kilometric.  This means that all road signs and speed limit signs are now in kilometers only (previously, the speed limits were in miles and road signs were in either kilometers or miles, depending on local whimsy).  I’m a bit worried about this new national uniformity.  Traveling in Ireland could become too easy.

The first time I traveled in Ireland was in a rental car with two friends, Jane and Larry.  When we landed, at Shannon, at night, in December, Jane and I decided that Larry should handle the drive to our B&B in Ennistymon.  He could be heard muttering about "so-called feminists" as we headed for the car. 

Our drive to Ennistymon was short but harrowing.  We drove as far to the left as possible, hugging the hedges, panicking every time the headlights of an oncoming car, seemingly headed right for us, appeared around a bend (the locals tend to drive in the middle of the road–fewer potholes there).  Occasionally we screamed. 

The road signs presented an additional challenge, as they could be in either kilometers or miles.  We would see "Ennistymon, 15," drive 5 miles or so, then see "Ennistymon, 25."  We were getting farther away from our destination as we drove toward it.  The signs were both encouraging and discouraging. Yes, you’re on the right road.  No, no, you won’t actually get there.

Then there were the roundabouts.  No signs appeared before a roundabout, so we had no choice but to keep circling, reading off the various exit choices until we found the one that sounded likely.  Behavior like this might result in gunfire in the U.S., but people in the west of Ireland are used to idiotic American drivers and are generally forgiving, especially in December, when there aren’t so many of us around.

By the second or third day we were getting more used to the narrow roads and the kamikaze oncoming traffic.  The road signs, however, remained troublesome.

On the Dingle Peninsula we decided to drive out to Brandon Point, a place reached by one lone road along the edge of a sea cliff.  This seemed straightforward.  Still, we got lost, somewhere in Cloghane or possibly Brandon, steered down tiny, rutted, hedge-lined lanes to nowhere by signs that seemed to indicate numerous possibilities for reaching the Point, like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

Jane and I decided to ask for directions.  A genial man in a cap said a cheerful "Hello ladies" when we rolled down the car window. He assured us Brandon Point was straight ahead, and we "couldn’t miss it."  "You’d be surprised," said Jane, but we did find it at last, driving along the side of Brandon Mountain until we reached the end of the road, with the long rolling breakers of Brandon Bay to our right, and the open Atlantic ahead.  It was near sunset and the water was turquoise, seemingly lit from below.

We were not as lucky with Gallarus Oratory, a 1200 year old stone chapel to the west of Dingle town.  We saw a sign at the end of a small road that read "Gallarus Oratory, 1/4 mile."  We turned in and drove to the end of the road, where we saw another sign, pointing back to where we’d been, that read "Gallarus, 1/2 mile."  We went back, parked in the middle, got up on a couple of concrete gateposts (a "Beware of Bull" sign tacked to one of them) and scanned both ways.  No sign of Gallarus.

Later, I found out that the locals would reorient signs for their own amusement (that would explain how we ended up at Brandon Creek while following a sign back to Dingle town).  I had to admire the attitude.  They would take our tourist dollars alright, but that didn’t mean they were gonna make things easy for us. 

That was eight years ago.  In the last year or two, large green road signs have appeared all over the rural west with destinations and distances clearly marked.  There are even two or three straightforward signs to Gallarus (though they send you to the tourist center and coach carpark where you can buy a ticket, instead of to the small pulloff up a one-lane road where you walk to Gallarus on a gravel path through fushcia hedges, for free).

And now, as of yesterday, national uniformity, everything in kilometers.  No driver in Ireland will ever again have the disorienting experience of getting farther away from their destination as they get closer.  Of course this is good.  It’s modern and progressive, and it helps people get around the place, vital to a tourist-charged economy. 

Yet, I experienced a small twinge as I remembered the confusing charm of earlier days. There are places I never would have found and people I never would have met if I’d gone directly to where I was going.

As it turns out, this twinge was premature.  The new law requires that all roads have posted speed limits.  Previously, it was assumed that drivers knew the limit, based on the type of road it was (motorway, national road, etc.).  Tourists, of course, would not know that, so these new signs would be especially helpful for them.

Thus did we find out that the small bohareen on which my friend Kate lives–a one-lane, hedge-lined road with numerous curves that goes up the side of a mountain–is newly signposted at 80 km.  That’s about 50 mph.  The road through Killarney National Park, narrow and twisting, winding through old forests, under one-lane natural rock bridges, by quiet lakes and up precarious mountainsides, is also posted at 80 km.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, a bridge to Dollymount Strand has been posted at 5 km, a speed so low it is not even on the speedometer.  Most people can walk faster than that.

It appears that the Irish driving experience is characterized by a certain zaniness that no law can overcome.

The people in Dublin contacted their county council, and the sign at Dollymount Strand will be changed. 

Back west, where the new speed limit signs are being ignored as thoroughly as the old signs, I hear a rumor that road signs in the Gaeltacht will soon be in Irish only.

I’m looking foward to the tourist season.