Ireland has some of the most stunning drives in Europe, from the wild Atlantic coastline to the inland table-top mountains. Here are 7 awe-inspiring mountain passes that can be enjoyed even more so when you have a professional driver behind the wheel!
The Sally Gap, Co. Wicklow
The Sally Gap is a mountain pass that sits at 503m (1,650ft) above the sea level, located in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland, south of Dublin. It is one of two east-to-west passes across the Wicklow Mountains and it offers spectacular views of the surrounding blanket bog and the mountains. One of its innumerable twists and turns reveals Lough Tay, known as Guinness Lake because it sits on private lands owned by the Guinness family and its waters look black when viewed from above. The exposed nature of the road is not surprising when you learn that it was built after the Irish rebellion of 1798 by British Army forces looking to flush rebels from the hills. We guarantee that even the bravest adventurer will be left awestruck by the views.
When you reach Laragh, enjoy exploring the ancient monastic site of Glendalough on foot before lunch in a locals’ favourite watering hole – the Wicklow Heather.
Glengesh Pass, Donegal
Glengesh (which means ‘Glen of the Swans’) is a high mountain pass that cuts through the Glengesh and Mulmosog mountains and links the towns of Ardara and Glencolumbkille in Donegal. You can expect quiet open countryside, plenty of green fields, narrowish roads and lots and lots of sheep.
Travelling with your own Driver Guide means you can pull in safely and climb up the grassy hills for the ultimate views of the winding road. A lovely place to stop is the Assaranca Waterfall or Maghera Strand on the Ardara side or Glencolumbkille Folk Village, Silver Strand Beach, the towering sea cliffs at Slieve League and Donegal’s hidden waterfall. Standing at 596 metres (1,955 ft), Slieve League are the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Durras to Schull, Cork
“Wild, rugged, scenic and splendid, this was a road introduced to me by another lover of special roads – my fiancée,” says Ireland Chauffeur Travel founder Shane Leahy, speaking about the road from Durrus to Schull in West Cork. The very pleasant village of Durrus is located at the head of Dunmanus Bay, where the Sheep’s Head and Mizen Head Peninsulas meet. Ancient Neolithic (3500-1500 BC) tombs sit alongside artisan food producers, such as the famous Durrus Irish Farmhouse Cheese where production dates from 1979.
With the Mt Gabriel on your right, as you crest the peak of the hill the landscape opens up to reveal Fastnet Lighthouse, an archipelago of islands – from Horse Island, Sherkin Island and distant Cape Clear – and the pretty town of Schull surrounding the harbour. For Shane, a favourite element of any special drive pass is meeting locals in a watering hole on the far side. “For that, I recommend a driver or an overnight bag,” he laughs. “There is plenty of music, craic and incredible food in Schull, so it would be a shame not to stop and support local business.”
Ballaghbeama Gap, Kerry
Ballaghbeama Pass cuts across the mountains in the centre of the Iveragh Peninsula and offers an isolated but breath-taking alternative route to the Ring of Kerry.
Photographers who travel with us love this route, which joins Glencar to the west and Blackwater to the east. During the early summer, wild heather means the mountains glow purple.
Ancient rock art can be found dotted around the landscape and there is evidence of a “Cillin”, which was used primarily for the burial of unbaptised children. Mullaghanattin mountain stands proud over the pass and there are wonderful places to take in the views of the horseshoe ridge that shelters a narrow glen.
Conor Pass, Kerry
The highest mountain pass in Ireland runs from Dingle out towards Brandon Bay and Castlegregory. The tight, narrow road of Conor Pass snakes alongside the mountain and weaves its way along sharp cliff faces on one side and an enormous drop to the other.
The road at Conor Pass can be intimidating for even the most experienced driver – there is often space for only one vehicle to pass and the need to reverse around tight bends. Add in mist and you’ll be especially glad to have an expert at the wheel!
However, it is those tight bends, high cliffs and dramatic drop that makes the pass so magnificent to explore as you venture through the Kingdom of Kerry.
Healy Pass, Cork
The road at Healy Pass was constructed in 1847 during the famine as part of a relief scheme to prevent the starvation of the population – there were many similar schemes around Ireland.
It is named after Tim Michael Healy, a politician from Cork who served as the first governor general of the Irish Free State. Upon his retirement, Healy asked that the bridleway winding through the pass be upgraded and improved. Today, many testify that it is easily the bendiest road in Ireland. From above, it looks like a giant snake, slithering its way through the two highest summits in the Caha mountain range. Although the road here is narrow, you don’t tend to meet many other people driving along it adding to the feeling of remote wonder. Healy Pass is a corner of Ireland that looks like time passed it by and forgot all about it, leaving it untouched and unspoiled.
Yeats Country, Sligo
Along with the awesome table-top mountain of Benbulben, Glencar Waterfall is perhaps the most recognisable natural wonder from the poems of W.B Yeats. It is particularly impressive after rain as the water rushes down 50ft into a horseshoe-shaped pool. Taking a drive through Leitrim and Sligo, ensures you will see the falls and Benbulben, which is a showstopper overlooking Sligo Bay. Carved by moving glaciers, it’s one of the Wild Atlantic Way’s most distinctive landmarks and features in the scenes of the hit series ‘Normal People’.
Just a short drive away, Yeats lies buried in the small cemetery at Drumcliff. Taking a driving tour of this area combines literary history with National Geographic-standard views.