Virtual Tour of Ireland

A few years ago, inspired by the fact that my parents were on holiday at the time, I decided to do some travelling of my own while seated on my office chair. It would be a virtual tour, using Google Street View to simulate a journey.

I chose Ireland as my destination. No doubt Ireland’s reputation as one big fairytale backdrop can sometimes cross the line into stereotyping, and I understand that its reputation as being rich in natural scenery — while absolutely true — is in large part the legacy of an uncomfortable history. But since it is rich in natural scenery, we might as well make the most of it.

I began by sketching a rough plan for the journey, starting from the notion that it would begin at the border with Northern Ireland and proceed anticlockwise. I sampled random locations around the coast, and where these pleased me most I proposed to take a predominantly coastal route, and where I felt an inland route would add more to the journey I sampled random locations along candidate routes and selected the most promising options.

That gave me a draft route to follow, which I would refine later. Preparations complete, I then entered Google Street View in Muff (just west of the border) and clicked on the road ahead to go forward.

My concept for the journey probably evolved over time a lot more than I can remember, and what it became was a quest to find the most scenic route around the Republic of Ireland that I could. I identified unmissable waypoints (coastal ones to begin with), then backtracked to find the most pleasing routes between those points — partly by random sampling to narrow down the possibilities, and partly by simulating drives along multiple routes and choosing the one I liked best. So altogether I simulated a lot of small journeys.

It became a long-term project, which I would resume once every few months when I was in the mood and had the time to spare. In contrast to a typical holiday plan (consisting of a list of destinations and the most convenient routes between them), my goal was to find a route that, as much as possible, would provide continual delights. And I recorded the route I decided upon as I went, surveying the scenery and wondering what stories were embedded in the landscape.

In the end I got as far as Donegal before tiring of the endeavour. It’s no coincidence that I stopped at a more densely populated part of the country — with two major cities, Donegal and Sligo, a mere fifty kilometres apart, and a network of towns surrounding them. I did try resuming the simulation further south but we’ll get to that shortly.

One problem I faced from the start was that linking to Google Maps is not a very stable way to save a route. All it takes is a minor change in Google’s algorithm, or for the Irish authorities to get it into their heads to upgrade a road, for the route recorded to no longer be a true record of my intentions. Worse, Google have announced that Classic Maps will soon be no longer supported, and I am deeply pessimistic about that. Last time I checked, the new Google Maps was crippled to the point of being quite impossible to use for simulating and recording a journey.

It’s been at least a couple of years since I last worked on the route, and it was always my intention to blog it someday. Having decided that now is the time, I spent several days recently re-tracing my journey from Muff to Donegal on Google Street View, refreshing my memory and making a few minor tweaks as I went. Section by section, I then recorded the route on video, holding a camera up to the monitor as I scrolled along the map. (This was an extremely frustrating process, and the resulting video is no polished production, but trust me: if you knew how many takes it took to get it to work adequately, you’d understand that perfection is not an option.) This video contains all the information one would need to mark my journey in a paper street directory and test it out in real life.

Here it is: Muff to Donegal, my way.

A few notes:

  • There’s nothing special at the marked waypoints. They are there simply to force Google to follow the route I selected.
  • I couldn’t always find continual delights. There are dead spots. But I made the best of them that I could, and they lead somewhere worthwhile in the end.
  • The route isn’t necessarily the most scenic in real life. Plenty of parochial factors influenced my choices, for example sometimes the Google Car just happened to be passing by at the perfect moment to get the most out of the landscape, with the sun shining at just the right angles.
  • Also, in some places the Google Car has recorded photographs more recently than my original journey through that region, so the reason I went one way and not another may no longer be apparent.
  • In the final approach to Donegal, I stuck to the main road (N56) and didn’t explore the sidestreets, because a lot of those sidestreets were recorded at a time of year when most of the vegetation was dead. It would have been pointless to try and choose between them.

In my early planning (back when the above was encapsulated simply by the phrase “coastal route”), I proposed that after continuing  more-or-less coastal to Westport I would follow an inland route to Galway and again to Limerick. The route I decided upon, after sampling a few possibilities, was a draft — to be refined, perhaps radically, if I ever got that far in the Street View simulation — but as with all drafts it gave me something to go on.

After my Street View simulation had stalled at Donegal, I revisited the far end of the plan I had drafted earlier and decided that Tralee would be a good place to re-join the coast. From there I started another Street View simulation en route to Dingle, where I proposed to do some sort of loop at the end of the Dingle Peninsula then follow a more-or-less coastal route to Cork. But there are still a lot of roads down that way that the Google Car has never traversed, and in at least one case its path was blocked by a giant puddle. Arriving at Cork would mark the end of my journey down the west coast of Ireland, but I did write down a vague plan for travelling onward (follow the N20 north to Mallow then the N72 east until meeting the R671, taking it north to Clonmel, then east on the N24 to Waterford).

In the following video, my draft inland route from Westport via Galway to Limerick, extended to Tralee, is appended with the route I was working on between Tralee and Dingle.

If you want, you can download slighly (but only slightly) higher resolution versions of the videos here and here. I won’t link directly to the maps, since Classic Maps is due to expire soon, but if you’re so inclined you can reconstruct them yourself.

Naturally, I am interested in hearing the opinions that Irish residents have about my virtual journey. For example: which parts of my route have you visited, which parts haven’t you visited, and which are the best places that I missed? I don’t expect anyone to test a portion of my route in real life or take on the project where I left off, but of course you’re welcome to do either. And for readers with nothing to say about Ireland, perhaps you have a pertinent comment to add about your experience with Google Maps. In any case, comments are open.

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