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Safety Tips for Tourists in Rural Ireland

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I am intrigued by emergency services response times. The Greater Manchester Police in the United Kingdom used to have a page displaying how quickly they answered a 999 (our 911) call, and then how quickly the police arrived. Rural Ireland, however, is a different animal than suburban England.

Stone walls and houses in Rural Ireland

The Irish national police have limited resources compared to England. Police organize by Divisional and District Headquarter stations in the county’s largest towns. There are also many little outposts dotted around rural parts of the county. The outposts are usually manned by only a handful of officers or Gardaí (pronounced Gar-DEE, the plural form of the Irish word Garda, meaning police officer). The six local cops where I live watch an area of about 300 square kilometers. They have one car at their disposal. While the police are only 15 minutes from my house, the station is manned about 20 hours a day. If you call when they’re out, the police come out from the Divisional Headquarters, which is about 30 minutes away.

Response times are slow in the rural areas.

According to policy, the police aim to answer a call within 7 seconds and respond within 15 minutes. That’s just for urban areas. For rural areas, I’ve heard of response times taking forty-five minutes to an hour. Out here, you’re on your own.

And here’s the other thing—Ireland has a strange address system. Most roads in rural areas have no name, and the houses have no numbers. When giving your address to emergency dispatch, you give your townland (a small geographical division of land used in rural Ireland) name and the name of the nearest town with a post office to which your townland is zoned. While townlands are marked on maps, there is rarely signage. A visitor would not understand which townland he or she was in unless they were to ask a police officer or postman. The government just spent €40 million assigning every house in the country a postcode. Hardly anyone knows their code and even fewer use them.

Luckily, your postman and the emergency services know you and know where you live. They see you at the local watering hole often enough. But that wouldn’t be the case for a tourist.

If you’re planning a trip to rural Ireland (or other parts) and have to make a call to emergency services, then there are a few things worth considering:

Know your address. Knowing the address of your accommodation may not be good enough. It may just be a townland type address. Depending on the size of the townland, you may be a needle in a haystack. Be aware of your surroundings to give the dispatcher clear directions. Landmarks help too.

Keep your keys to hand. There are two types of locks in Ireland, the old skeleton key type and the more modern five-pin cylinder type. It is not advisable to leave a skeleton key in the door. It can be turned with an unbent paper clip from the outer keyhole.

999, not 911. In both the UK and Ireland the emergency number is 999. The standard EU emergency number (112) also works. When calling 999 from a landline (in a rural area) dispatch will generally only know your townland. Again, make sure to be able to give directions. The same dynamic occurs when calling from a cell phone.

The flashlight is your friend. There’s an “Ireland at Night” postcard that’s all black because it’s true. In the west of Ireland, you will want to have a flashlight. As discussed on this website, a flashlight makes a good defensive tool.

Know the other emergency services. I keep a laminated card of emergency numbers next to my telephone. I prefer a corded phone over portable (in the case of a power outage), but having a cordless portable as a backup is good too. The telephone numbers on the card include my doctor, the nonemergency number of my local police station, poison control, the vet, and the emergency numbers of the electric and gas company. For an American tourist, having the number of the US Embassy is always a good idea too.

When traveling anywhere in the world, it’s always good practice to review State Department Warnings and Alerts. Rural Ireland is a safe and peaceful place, but you should always know your surroundings wherever you go.


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