In a camper-van through Ireland? Well, traveling in a camper-van has become affordable and seems quite normal these days - but it still retains a certain mystique of driving off into the unknown. And if you want to be sure not to encounter serious problems (like running out of fuel ... see below), it requires a certain amount of planning. Granted, you might choose to do without, but it certainly gets that little bit easier with at least basic planning.
And checking twice. Camping in Ireland is certainly an enjoyable, but also challenging experience.
Getting There or Hiring There?
First things first - if you are living in Great Britain or in Europe and you already own a camper-van, you will more than likely want to use your own vehicle in Ireland. This has several advantages, starting with you actually knowing the vehicle, how it drives, what its dimensions are, what that clanking sound in the back is. And as you already paid for the vehicle, it makes sense to use it.
Having a vehicle in Britain or Europe does, however, mean that you have to get the vehicle to Ireland. And apart from driving, that also means catching a ferry to Ireland. Which can, depending on time and route, be a very costly thing. And even within the same frame of reference lead to interesting mathematical problems.
At times it can become much cheaper to catch a flight to Ireland and then hire a camper-van on the island.
And mentioning costs - if you decide on the ferry, it can pay off to stock up on food and snacks before boarding. The prices for meals on board can easily reach the dizzy heights of a luxury restaurant ... minus the luxury, and occasionally minus taste.
In Ireland - Curbed Freedom
Having finally reached Ireland (or picked up your rental), you'll soon be facing another problem - the beloved freedom to stop and stay just where you like will often simply not be there. The "soft variety" are signs that prohibit overnight stays on car parks or in a lay-by. The (literally) hard variety is an entrance gate that will only allow vehicles below two meters in height through (with the help of a solid steel so-called "tinker bar" across the road) - at least without any structural damage to the vehicle.
The reason? For one these restrictions have come about to discourage non-settled minorities from claiming these areas for semi-permanent residency. Laws have also been passed in recent years that severely penalize overnight or longer parking in restricted areas or (without explicit permission of the owner) private land. Tourists will generally be admonished to move on and behave in future, repeat offenders may see the offending vehicle impounded.
Several guidebooks do carry the hint simply to ignore signs - not a good idea, as those coming in the next year will almost certainly find the car park inaccessible to larger vehicles.
While the driver of a camper-van may be well-behaved and only park for a short while, the behavior of others will lead to frustration in the form of the "tinker bars".
These make parking impossible, even for a short while to enjoy the view, and often there is no safe alternative on the roadside. You'll often see camper-vans slowing down, even stopping for a few seconds (presumably to take a photo), then accelerating again to search for another, friendlier spot.
Staying in a Caravan Park
The totally legal way to stay overnight would be in a designated area for camper-vans. These are frequent in Europe, they are almost non-existent or at least very hard to find in Ireland. Let us not discuss safety here ... the odd one we saw did not seem very trustworthy.
So caravan parks are the way to go.
As there is no central register for those, you'll have to pick up information from the internet, from booklets or brochures you find as you drive along, on other sites or in tourist information offices.
Or go by word of mouth, amongst fellow caravan users or through the management of the site you are currently staying. Asking other enthusiasts is recommended ...
The intensive analysis of brochures cannot help if the brochure bears no resemblance to reality - there is no agreed standard as such, "star" ratings seem to be homespun in many cases and even official recommendations can be woefully out of date. We found sites that were rated very low, yet offered a very good standard. Others were boasting high ratings, only to resemble a refugee camp after the refugees have left for better places.
As to prices - they do not reflect the standard actually found.
Generally speaking, caravan parks in Northern Ireland were of a palpably better standard than in the Republic.
Time of the Season
Adding to the confusion is the variable "season" that can be found - caravan parks would be open between March and October, between Saint Patrick's Day and the October Bank Holiday.
But, and this is a big BUT ... many caravan parks only run at full service only between mid-May and late August. Outside these times you may still stay there, but not all advertised amenities may be available. Enquire by phone if you need something urgently!
Problems? Well, there is the gas ...
When we headed off for Ireland, we had three bottles of gas packed ... or so I thought. Actually, I managed to skip checking the bottles properly, only to find out that one was half full, the others empty. Time for a refill.
Now here comes the crunch - those bottles of gas you buy and refill on the Continent are not compatible with those in Ireland. the gas is, but the fittings are not. So your bottles cannot be swapped for full ones, they also cannot be refilled without converting (and later reconverting) them. Which will lead to cold, dark nights and no hot food except a takeaway.
The only source we could find was through the Flogas network - you should check with them for possible refill points before traveling, contact email and phone numbers are on the Flogas website.