Full Circle: Standing Stones & Driving in Ireland

Visiting my first-ever Neolithic circle of standing stones—Beltany Circle—is inextricably linked in my memory with another far more terrifying first: driving alone on the left-hand side of the road.

Sheep graze around beautiful Beltany Stone Circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sheep graze around beautiful Beltany Stone Circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As I planned my trip to Ireland, I realized that my pilgrimage to prehistoric stones and countryside spas and B&Bs required a rental car. However, I was traveling alone on this trip—there would be no brave companion to volunteer to take the dreaded right-sided wheel or navigate clockwise roundabouts.

So, I reserved an automatic car—no shifting gears with my left hand, thanks very much!—and then spent weeks anticipating the horror of making right turns in heavy traffic. My one consolation: My first week in Ireland was at a weeklong Patchwork Farms‘ creative writing and yoga retreat in Downings, Donegal, which I reached from Dublin via bus and taxi.

Driving to Beltany

While relaxing with other writers, I prepped myself mentally: I sat directly behind drivers and pretended I was piloting the bus through crowded streets and across one-vehicle-at-a-time bridges. Except for the ultra-narrow byways requiring that you back up if you meet oncoming traffic, country roads felt far more relaxing.

And so, after swallowing a capsule of herbal anti-anxiety valerian, I loaded my suitcase into the “boot” of my little Ford, buckled my seatbelt, and pleaded with the ancient Irish warrior goddesses to give me courage and a clear shot on the road.

Luckily, I had minimal town driving before I hit the highway, then I was off on smaller country roads toward the village of Raphoe, where I followed signs pointing me to Beltany Circle. The whole trip lasted less than an hour, but it felt like a lifetime.

My guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan, mentioned that this circle sat amongst farmland, but until I got there, it was hard to imagine. Even with the signs, I was sure I was trespassing down someone’s private farm road—and technically I was—but in Ireland, megaliths are public property, even if they’re in your back yard.

Here, I parked close to a large farm, peeled my fingers off the steering wheel, took a deep breath of the damp country air, and walked up the hill through an eerie, dark passageway of trees.

At one spot, there was a break in the trees, and I peeked through to see it: Beltany, my first stone circle! Its name refers to Beltaine, the pagan celebration of the first day of summer, celebrated on May Day (May 1). Beltany Circle’s largest slab is aligned with the sunrise on Beltaine.

I picked up my pace and emerged from the thick trees into a field of calf-high grass with a splendid long view of the circle. Just then, it began to rain, so I hiked back to the car and pulled on my hiking boots and rain pants: better gear for the field, which was muddy, wet, and strewn with sheep dung.

Beltany Circle is at the top of a hill that overlooks miles of patchwork farmland. I was alone there except for a flock of sheep who looked up from their grazing when I arrived, but then ignored me. Being on the hilltop, I was also exposed to harsh, wind-driven rain coming over the valley, so I sat down in the lee of one of the stones and ate my lunch. (I sat outside the stones, because you’re not supposed to eat inside a sacred circle.)

Rocks with Character

What a fabulous variety of stones there were: I counted 62 of them arranged fairly close together in a large circle. Some are six feet tall; others are just one or two feet. The stones look a lot like snaggly, crooked teeth: a few jutting out almost horizontally. They’re covered with blotches of white-, grey-, green- and mustard-colored lichen and rusty stains, giving each rock a personality, like markings on a leopard. Most of the stones are guarded by clumps of stinging nettles: nature’s do-not-disturb signs.

And indeed, I am beautifully alone during the three hours I write at and explore the circle, except for the visit of a pair of moms, their kids, and two dogs. I don’t mind the company, except the kids climb on the stones. There’s nothing posted against not climbing, but still, the circle is at least 3,500 years old.

In the circle’s center is a fireplace filled with newly charred logs, so obviously this place is still important to people around here. This is one of the things I love most about Ireland: the past is just so, well, present.

I wanted to stay at Beltany Circle forever, but my departure was urgent: I needed to reach my B&B in the Donegal town before dinner. (My one promise to help allay my fears was no driving after dark—which wasn’t hard considering that in August it’s dusky in Ireland until 10 p.m.)

Getting into the car again wasn’t that bad, especially now that I knew what treasures were in store throughout rural Ireland if I just continued to conquer my fear of driving on the left side of the road.

P.S. What’s your best (or worst) tale of driving in on the “wrong” side of the road? Was it worth the drive to reach your destination?

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.

More about megaliths:

12 thoughts on “Full Circle: Standing Stones & Driving in Ireland

  1. I lived in England until my late twenties so driving on the left is pretty ingrained. Roundabouts don’t confuse me unless they’re the enormous ones in major metropolitan areas. Even so, I have to pay extra attention and so will always pay the extra for an automatic. These days I also take my GPS with me – it’s so much easier than trying to read a map and drive unfamiliar roads.

  2. Years ago I spent a couple of months in Australia. After just a few days there my old friend lent me her car to go camping for a week along the Great Ocean Road, west from Melbourne. BUT I had to make a trip into the city center (3 million people??) before driving out of town. From NEVER having driven on the left in my life I had to navigate through a major metropolis driving on the left, with new road signs, rules and the like. I had to consciously tell myself to breathe, but I survived.

    Years later though, the young daughter of a woman I know through a friend did not survive. She was on a dark road at 2am in New Zealand, headed back to where she was staying, tired after working a late shift at a pub….sadly on the wrong side of the road. She met one car that night just as she crested a hill, which was driving in its proper lane coming from the opposite direction–the same lane she was in….and it was the end of her very short life. I wish I could know that it will never happen again.

    • I’m glad you at least were safe! I steered away from cities in Ireland–until I had to surrender the rental car at the Dublin airport. Fortunately I was mostly on highways so the choices of wrong direction are pretty limited. Still, the experience was nerve-wracking.

  3. I was in Scotland two years ago driving around one of the big lochs. I would have been OK just driving on the left side but it was also a narrow road and the roads were packed with people coming up from the cities for the weekend. They all seemed to be going very fast around the curves, and it felt like I was inches away from hitting them, kept clinging to the side (and almost going into the woods) to avoid hitting them. When we finally got to our destination, I thought I would rather walk across Scotland than get in the car again. Luckily, when we reached the Isle of Skye, it was just single-track roads where you could see other cars (and cows) coming and pull off to avoid them.

    • When I was driving the Slieve League sea cliffs in Ireland, I nearly got out–except there was nowhere to park until you got to the parking lot at the end. And there was often no shoulder to the road–just a thousand-foot plunge into the Atlantic! Cripes! I’m breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it. But the cliffs and the ocean views were just gorgeous!

  4. Your post brings back happy memories of taking my aging father on a trip to Ireland. We rented a car at Shannon Airport and I did the driving. I don’t remember the left-side of the road being the problem as much as the lack of signs in the country, especially in the Gaelic part! It was a great trip, though.

    • I loved seeing those Gaelic signs, although they’re fewer and far between nowadays. County Donegal still has several places where there are Irish speakers, but they’re mainly elderly.

  5. I’ve never had to drive on the left side of the road–and wouldn’t look forward to it either–but your post is a rich story of connecting with place. I love that you spent three hours among the stones, much of it (I assume) in the rain. You conjured up the scene for us beautifully. Sounds like a wonderful afternoon in spite of the roads!

    • Yes, it was rainy a good deal of the time, but I had a raincoat, rainpants, and then a rain poncho to cover my backpack and camera. It was truly a magical and relaxing place! I often dream of being there again soon!

  6. A few years ago, I spent 5 days in Sussex — also solo. I wrote a blog post about the experience, but when I attempted to clear my broken links list, WordPress obliterated the entire post. I wrote about driving on the left & shifting with the right, confusing directional signs in the countryside (like a village square that had sets of signs on either end that pointed to completely different nearby villages), signs that pointed to “City Centre” without a clue as to which city or “Welcome to Out Village – Drive with Care” without the name of the village. The air in my little red rental car turned blue from my curses from the constant wrong turns and overshootings of where I had wanted to go. As Winston Churchill famously said, “America and England are two nations separated by a common language,” to which I would add, “and different driving habits too.

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