Using Google Maps in Ireland

Can the Free Mapping System be used on a Vacation?

Google will even guide you to Muff ... in County Donegal
Google will even guide you to Muff ... in County Donegal. Screenshot from Google Maps

Google Maps is a free tool that can be used for plotting road trips and accessing driving directions on your computer or phone. While free maps are now seemingly everywhere online, Google takes an all-inclusive, state-of-the-art approach. This means that you can get basic maps, satellite images of a mixture of both. However, Ireland is notorious for its small country roads and rural setting, so just how well does Google Maps work for driving in Ireland?

What to Expect from Google Maps

Amongst the dozens of tools available on Google, Google Maps combines the origins of Google as a search engine with cutting-edge technology. All you have to do is put in a (geographical) search term and get a satellite image and map of it. In many cases, you can simply type in the name of your destination. In other cases, it may be easier to search by street address if you have this available.

The map tool tends to work quickly, but because it is provided for free, users should expect to see some advertisements integrated into the results.

Search terms can be specific or general however it is always better to be precise. For example, when searching for Glendalough, users may end up with results in Australia rather than Ireland. Location-based search is improving as Google tries to predict your main interest via your IP address (if it is an Irish one, expect more Irish results). Lesson One remains: always specify at least the country, better the county! The more specific your search term, the better Google's result.

As long as you know where you want to go, Google Maps is a pretty reliable tool. You can choose to display a schematic map only which is great for quick reference. Alternatively, you might choose to opt for a satellite picture with a map overlay. However, the map overlay also shows just how basic these maps can be, especially in rural areas the satellite images showing quite a few unmarked roads.

The online maping tool also allows you to zoom in and out when you identify a specific landmark or address of interest. While coverage of the satellite images is always improving and being updated, some rural areas will still be so pixelated that you cannot make out any real features on the ground.

Using Google Maps

Google Maps can be used without any experience with the interface or app. The actual handling of the maps is very intuitive, mastered within seconds.

The drawback of using the tool is that you will need a computer with average power and modernity. Poor connections make it difficult to handle the data in real-time. However, most laptops, tablets, and smartphones handle this well. If you plan on using Google Maps will you drive through Ireland you might run into trouble with connectivity in rural areas. There can also be unexpected costs (by data transfer via a mobile phone connection) which make an old fashioned map sound like a better option, despite the service being free.

Google Maps is absolutely great in the planning stage at home, or in a hotel room, especially combined with Streetview. It can also be a nostalgic way to re-track and re-live your experiences when your vacation in Ireland comes to an end.

Google Maps Compared to Printed Maps

In general, I would rate Google Maps amongst the most useful online tools available when used in addition to conventional planning tools like guidebooks or websites. While the satellite images are great, the information contained at times can be sparse, and also subject to a distorted perspective (see below).

The mapping section is relatively simplified and adequate for daily use. It contains necessary detail like road names, but there it stops. Additional information from height indicators to hints at features is often simply not there. In this aspect, any large-scale map purchased from Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) wins hands-down.

Google Maps in Ireland

Google Maps provides fairly reliable driving directions in Ireland, but comes with a few drawbacks. Here are some things I noticed in daily use:

  • Uneven Coverage Quality
  • While Dublin City is seen in good, detailed satellite images, some deep, confusing shadows in the city centre prevent it from being great. Glendalough is superb, but Clonmacnoise almost invisible and Tara simply drowning in fuzziness. Take note that Google Maps occasionally zooms in beyond sense, leading to dramatic losses in picture quality.
  • Unusual Viewpoint Flattens Detail
  • The Spire of Dublin in O'Connell Street is Dublin's highest landmark, yet it cannot be seen. Only its shadow gives it away. The reason: you look straight down upon it in some views, however Street View gives a better sense of heights. In some cases, Street View is not feasible due to geographic features like the sea. In these cases, places like the Cliffs of Moher and Slieve League look decidedly unimpressive from space.
  • Dangerous Sense of Security
  • Always remember - Google Maps distorts! The Grand Canyon looks like a manageable indention from straight above, and on a two-dimensional screen. The tool can be great for roads but never plan a cross-country hike without consulting a detailed map first. I recently discovered a basic map that mentioned the viewing point on the Cliffs of Magho on (Lower Lough Erne) being "a short walk" from a jetty. Apparently, nobody had noticed that while the horizontal distance was indeed only 500 yards, the vertical distance is around a thousand feet.
  • Potentially Misleading Photos
  • Some of the greatest photo scandals in history have ultimately been revealed as tricks of light, shadow, and unusual perspective. Beware of interpreting the satellite images in a rush. I showed Dublin City to a friend who remarked she never knew Dublin had so many canals. Actually, these were the deep shadows of tall buildings on wide streets, indistinguishable from the real canals and the Liffey. A picture may be worth a thousand words but be careful in assuming that you can tell everything from one image.

The greatest peril of Google Maps may, however, be to the amount of time you have available for other things. Searching for beautiful places in Ireland on the tool is seriously addictive and you may soon find yourself looking up your grandma's house or other famous places all around the world.

A Final Verdict

Google Maps is a great tool and it has grown into the go-to thing on the web. It is a fun tool to play around with or to do some research. Though a good map will give you more geographical detail, it will not show you satellite images which may make you feel better prepared to tackle unknown Irish roads.

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