Ireland by GPS and SatNav

Satellite Navigation on Irish Roads

Printed map or GPS-supported navigation systems? The choice is yours, but I still prefer "old school" for both detail and the big picture
••• Printed map or GPS-supported navigation systems? The choice is yours, but I still prefer "old school" for both detail and the big picture. © Bernd Biege 2016

Satellite navigation (in short "satnav") is available to everyone these days, even most phones offer it. But have you heard of the Irish GPS satnav system? As soon as you enter your destination, it tells you in a lilting voice, "Ah, shure, I wouldn't start from here ..." Bad jokes notwithstanding, satellite navigation (satnav) has really taken off in Ireland over the last few years. The combination of a global positioning system (GPS) and a digital map is the must-have gadget for many drivers (and one of the major causes of car break-ins).

But is it a must-have for travellers touring Ireland? Many car rental companies offer them for hire ... and if you have a smartphone, it'll more than likely be included anyway.

Basics - How Satellite Navigation Works

The late, great Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic - satnav qualifies in my eyes. A tiny box knows where you are and will give you unerring directions to your next destination. Even if you miss an exit or confuse left with right. Pure magic.

Actually satnavs are a low-budget, single-purpose combination of two systems - a computer storing a road map and a GPS receiver. The GPS pinpoints your current location in real time. The computer then calculates the "best" route to your destination and guides you along it, again using the ever-changing GPS information to verify your position and direction of travel.

The output of the satnav is visual on a smallish screen, most will also provide voice instructions.

Which might be too much for many users - the voices are devoid of personality and inflection, simply getting on your nerves after a while (then again, you may fall in love with the newer versions).

Satnav on the smartphone might be different, the maps for instance wouldn't be stored on the device, but be pulled down from the internet.

This might make a difference if you do not have network coverage (or enough credit to use it).

Ireland - Still a SatNav Backwater?

No - while a few years ago electronic maps of Ireland tended to be very basic and even non-existent in some areas, this situation has improved dramatically. Ongoing projects do, however, necessitate frequent updates of the maps stored in a satnav. Try to be equipped with the newest version possible.

There have been a few complaints regarding the frequency of updates. Ireland is not a big market - some manufactures seem content to update only occasionally.

The Pros of Using Satnav in Ireland

There are definite pros that make a satnav system desirable when touring Ireland:

  • Accurate information and directions in real time - except for rally drivers with experienced navigators or special forces teams nobody will have better directions. No questions about which way up the map should be, no "hang on, I think that was the wrong left".
  • Minimizes distraction - admit it, even if you trust your navigator, you'll still be glancing at the map. Dangerous. And driving while looking at a map could prove fatal.
  • Near impossibility of getting lost - even if you power the satnav down and follow backroads for two hours, it will know your position seconds after switching on. And get you out of there.
  • Updates can be incorporated fast - reprints of maps take years.

The Cons of Using Satnav in Ireland

To be perfectly honest, satnav systems have disadvantages too:

  • May hypnotically distract driver - I actually have seen drivers coming up to an intersection, concentrating on the satnav screen ... and crashing into a car waiting at a red light.
  • Directions depend on map accuracy - cheap satnavs with older maps may still get you from A to B, but not necessarily the quickest way.
  • No "to be opened" information - conventional maps often have new, planned routes pencilled in. This is impossible on a satnav. So if you happen upon a newly opened stretch of road your satnav might think you are in the middle of a field and become very confused for a while.
  • Provides no "roadside information" - one of the attractions when travelling (for me at least) is looking at maps and discovering that by a ten-minute-detour you might visit a castle or scenic viewing point. Satnav will ignore these attractions, unless they are part of the package.
  • Break-in risk - scurrilously enough most people are happy to leave a satnav in plain view when parking the car. "Smash and grab" break-ins have since increased in Dublin and other urban areas.
  • Some drivers are too dumb to handle satnav - not only are people trying to go down pedestrian stairs when the satnav tells them to take the next right, people are also mis-programming the satnav. Similar or identical placenames are a confusing factor here. Unfortunately reliance on technology has become so widespread that drivers wanting to go from Dublin to Kells in County Meath do not notice that the satnav guides them to Kells in County Kilkenny instead.

Navigating Ireland by Satellite - The Choice is Yours

While I have to agree that satnav is a great technological tool and must be a god-sent for emergency services, truckers and other professional vehicle users, I still am not totally convinced about its practical advantages for the vacationer. After all, vacations are not about getting from A to B efficiently, they are about exploring.

The downside: explorers get lost. I managed to do this while driving through Florida (the "Georgia" sign should have been a giveaway), near Dublin while hunting for a megalithic tomb (which took me two hours to find, having driven by the correct lane at least three times), and in a German bogland looking for a non-dead-end road out. But I managed, by map and wits. And in all cases actually found something interesting while being technically lost.

But I realize that there are millions of people out there uncomfortable with maps, pressed for time and so on.

So who are you? The gal right at home with maps, symbols and cardinal points, happy to take the scenic route? Or the guy who gets lost on his commute to work and wouldn't chance a look at the scenery anyway?

If you feel that there is a major benefit in having a satnav with you, by all means take one. But do not rely on it exclusively - while the satnav takes the pain (or pleasure) out of planning a route from A to B, you will have to decide on which B you want to go to and what points between you would like to visit. No technical tool can do this for you. In fact, as in my Kells example above, your satnav will lead you on a merry chase if you (by accident) tell it to.