10 Terrific Road Trips in Ireland

21st October 2010
Pól Ó Conghaile

Inishowen 100, Co. Donegal

You want far-flung? Inishowen is far-flung. And the Inishowen 100 will fling you even further, courtesy of a route that brushes the most northerly edges of Ireland.  The 100-mile route (hence the name) gets under starter’s orders in Bridgend (grab a bite in Harry’s beforehand), and follows a course through Buncrana and the magnificent Mamore Gap to Malin Head (the 10-arch bridge crossing Trawbreaga Bay is a highlight here). After pausing at Ireland’s most northerly point, turn around and begin your return trip, passing Greencastle and Muff en route to Letterkenny.

Details: Take the R238 from Bridgend. The drive is roughly 100 miles (161km) long.

Cooley Peninsula, Co. Louth

It may be petit, but the Cooley Peninsula punches way above its weight. In this small space, Cúchulainn made his name, Fionn Mac Cumhaill came to rest and a European Destination of Excellence award was won for “intangible heritage”. Allied to all this culture, of course, are scenic stars like the Mourne Mountains, Carlingford Lough and the al fresco museum that is Carlingford itself. This old Norman town is the place to break your journey (and, be warned, establishments like Ghan House and PJ O’Hare’s might prompt a longer pit-stop). Afterwards, you can continue to Newry on the A2.

Details: From the M1, take the R173 for 15km (12.5 miles) to Carlingford.

The Burren, Co. Clare

Don’t fancy stumping up $200,000 for a space ticket with Virgin Galactic? Killer karstic formations offer a moonscape much closer to home in the Burren. Europe’s largest limestone pavement area is riddled with potential stops… Ailwee Cave, Poulnabrone dolmen, the Burren Perfumery, Caherconnell Stone Fort (you might even see Father Ted’s house). A full circuit takes in Kilfenora, Black Head, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan, Killinaboy and Corofin, or a shorter option is the cracking coastal route leaving Ballyvaughan, turning south at Black Head, and ending at Fanore beach.

Details: The Burren circuit is 83kms. Ballyvaughan to Fenore on the R479 is 16km (9 miles).

Slieve Aughty Mountains, Co. Galway

The Slieve Aughty Mountains do not enjoy a high profile (in every sense – the highest peak, Maghera, rises just 400m above sea level). They make for a gem of a drive, however, with roads undulating through sprinkles of forest, bald summits and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them villages like Derrybrien, Ballinakill and Abbey. Some stretches are surprisingly desolate, with scattered ruins evoking families who worked the land in an Ireland that seems now almost unimaginable. When you hit the western side, stop for a coffee and a stroll through the walled gardens of Coole Park.

Details: Take the R353 from Portumna to Gort. The drive measures about 55km (35 miles).

Copper Coast, Co. Waterford

Waterford’s Copper Coast derives its name from the mining industry that thrived here during the 19th century, and old workhouse husks are still a feature of the landscape, bringing a flavour of Cornwall to the Sunny South East. This is an underrated stretch, broadly following the R675 from Tramore to Dungarvan, and passing plenty of attractions in between. From the manicured main street of Annestown to Stradbally Cove, the Blue Flag beach at Bonmahon and the kiss-me-quick amusements of Tramore, it’s a route so appetising, the Dungarvan Brewery Co. even named an ale after it.

Details: The R675 from Tramore to Waterford is about 41km (25 miles) in length.

Doolough Valley, Connemara

Pick the most scenic drive in Connemara? That’s no easy task in a part of Ireland so seductive, rubber-necking drivers run the risk of crashing into the scenery. The Sky Road outside Clifden is better known, but Doolough Valley arguably makes the deeper impression. Slicing between the Mweelrea Mountains and Sheefry Hills, the highlight of this long-cut between Leenane and Westport is a lake that changes mood with the light, flitting from pitch black to silvery chrome at a moment’s notice. The mountains are brownish, hulking brooders, and a stark monument marks a famine tragedy in the area.

Details: The distance along the R335 from Leenane to Louisburgh is 31km (20 miles).

The Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, planetary designer Slartibartfast wins an award for his work on the Norwegian fjords. The Causeway Coast could easily have been his practice run.  A drive from Ballycastle to Portrush is full of terrific twists and turns, with sights ranging from the basalt formations at the Giant’s Causeway to the vertigo-inducing Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge and Dunluce Castle, teetering on the cliff edges like a vacation villa from Middle Earth. Once the driving is done, enjoy a drink at the Old Bushmill’s Distillery. And don’t forget to toast Slartibartfast.

Details: The coastal route from Portrush to Ballycastle is about 35km (21 miles).

The Atlantic Film Trail, Co. Kerry

Ireland’s film history has finally gotten itself a driving route worthy of the back catalogue. The Atlantic Film Trail (discoverireland.ie/west) includes around two dozen locations stretching all the way from Glenties to Youghal, with arguably the finest stretch spotted along the Dingle Peninsula. Locations like Inch Strand (Ryan’s Daughter, Playboy of the Western World) and Clogher Strand (Far & Away) are included with snippets of brochure colour. On Slea Head, look out for the Blasket Islands offshore, before returning towards Tralee via the awesome Conor Pass.

Details: The Slea Head circuit of the Dingle Peninsula is around 45km (28 miles).

Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry

Since Noah was a boy, the Lakes of Killarney have been the yardstick against which Ireland’s scenic delights are measured. And even today, thronged as it is with tour buses, a drive around the National Park retains the ability to wow. Moll’s Gap and Ladies’ View (named for the pleasure it gave Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting on a visit in 1861) offer vistas over Lough Leane; other traditional stops are Torc Waterfall and Muckross House. If you fancy extending the trip, continue along the N70 as it loops around the Iveragh Peninsula. The Ring of Kerry still rules them all.

Details: Start at Killarney, taking the N71 for 33km (20 miles) to Kenmare.

The Gordon Bennett Route, Carlow, Laois & Kildare

Rush hour excepted, it’s hard to imagine driving at 12mph nowadays. That was the speed limit in 1903, however, when the Gordon Bennett Cup came in to Ireland. The 104-mile race around Kildare, Laois and Carlow brought a dash of daredevil glamour to the countryside, and is today re-traced with a map and signposts (gordonbennettroute.com). The scenery varies in quality, but when it’s good, it’s very good – take the Rock of Dunamaise, for example, the heritage town of Athy, Old Kilcullen or the scary old shell of Duckett’s Grove in Co. Carlow. Gentlemen, start your engines…

Details: The full Gordon Bennett Route measures 166km (104 miles).

Keywords: Road Trips, Ireland.