Posted by: wesleyjohnston | December 11, 2013

Five lesser-known curiosities of Northern Ireland roads

Northern Ireland is built on anomalies, and the road network is no different. Of course, everyone knows about the ‘biggies’ like the uncompleted M2 that sits in splendid isolation around Ballymena, or why the M1 runs to Dungannon and not towards Dublin. But in the run up to Christmas I thought it would be fun to look at five less well-known anomalies of the road network. In order to have some kind of theme to hang them on, these all relate to road numbering.

If you want to add your own odd road numbering quirks, feel free to comment at the end!

1. The A37 twins

Yes, there are two completely unrelated A37s in Northern Ireland. The first is fairly well known – it’s the ‘mountain road’ that forms half of the route from Coleraine to Derry:

The second is much less famous. It’s a 3 mile (5 km) stretch of road around Cullaville in south Armagh that is basically the short stretch of the Republic of Ireland’s N53 that briefly dips in and out of Northern Ireland just here:

It even appears on signs! How on earth this short section of road ended up with the same number as the ‘main’ A37 near Limavady is, I am sorry to stay, still a mystery. However, the fact that they are completely unrelated in every respect suggests that it is most likely a genuine error. The origin of Northern Ireland’s road numbering system has been lost in the mists of time, probably occurring around the time of partition in 1921, and no documentation appears to have survived to explain its bizarre (il)logic. That said, there is no law against having two roads with the same number, so in true Northern Irish fashion the situation will probably just remain until such times as there is a good reason to fix it.

2. The Metropolis of Orritor

Okay, this one is actually a past anomaly that appears to have since disappeared, but it’s fun nonetheless. Just west of Cookstown lies the tiny village of Orritor.

Nothing unusual in and of itself; there are literally dozens of little villages like this one all over Ulster’s countryside. What does make Orritor unusual, however, it that it was once connected to Cookstown via a pretty impressive-sounding A-class road, the A53. You can see it on an old map over at SABRE.

Modern maps do not label the road A53, and the number does not appear on any signs that I can find. Nevertheless, there is still a clear local belief that this is the A53. Nobody has been able to give a satisfactory explanation for the existence of the A53 leading to such an inconsequential place (no offence intended). Suggestions have included the presence of the home of a major politician in Northern Ireland’s early years (I have seen no evidence to back this up) or perhaps the presence of a major facility of some kind, such as a mill or industrial site. Does anyone with local knowledge have any idea?

3. A2, A2, A2!

The A2 gets everywhere. As well as being by far the longest numbered route in the province (it is 245 miles long, far ahead of the next longest, the 91 mile A29) it follows almost the entire coastline of Northern Ireland from Londonderry round to Newry:

The A2 is so greedy that it manages to visit three of Northern Ireland’s five cities, including the two largest. Not only that, but in Derry it even manages to form three of the five main routes out of the city! Looking at a map of the city:

…you can take the A6 to Belfast or the A5 towards Dublin, that’s fine. But your other alternatives are the A2 west to Buncrana, the A2 north to Muff or, er, the A2 towards Limavady.

The situation is just as bad when the A2 passes through Belfast. If you don’t fancy taking one of the motorways, you can choose between the A2 to Carrickfergus or the *ahem* A2 to Bangor:

As if it hasn’t got enough glory, the A2 also manages to be the only official sea-going road in the province, since the Portaferry to Strangford car ferry service is officially part of…. yes, you guessed it… the A2.

4. Single-digit B numbers.

Northern Ireland’s signage and regulations closely follow those used across the Irish Sea in Great Britain. However we have always liked to do things just that little, subtly different. B-roads are one example. In Great Britain almost all B-roads have three or four digits, so things like B322 or B4025.

Not us in Northern Ireland, no sir. We’re not going to waste expensive sign space with big numbers like that. So in Ardglass we have the mighty B1:

And in Craigavon we have the equally grand B2 which not only manages to have a very impressive number, but has even managed to wrangle its very own motorway junction. Ooh er.

We can be justly proud of this anomaly, I think. No messing around here. This is the B2. Like it or lump it.

5. The A3. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Finally, we come to a section of the A3 in Fermanagh (or is it Monaghan?) that just can’t decide what it wants to be. Back many, many years ago when Irish county boundaries were being drawn up nobody imagined that they would one day form the boundary between two different countries. So while a border that ambles and meanders around various farms and estates in rural Fermanagh probably seemed perfectly sensible at the time, it causes havoc for road numbering. Really, they should have been more considerate.

The A3 runs from Lisburn to the Monaghan border:

So far, so good. Thereafter it becomes the N12 to Monaghan and then the N54 to Cavan. But between Cavan and Monaghan the road briefly re-enters Fermanagh where the A3 causes total havoc, making not one, but two glorious last stands before petering out once and for all:

Driving south west from Clones you initially drive for a mile on the N54 (speed limits in kilometres per hour). You then cross the border where the road suddenly morphs into the A3 for two miles (and, excuse me, speed limits are in miles per hour, thank you very much). You then roll across the border, whereupon the road morphs into the N54 again for three miles (and as I said, speed limits are in kilometres per hour). Then you sail across the border once again, where the road again becomes the A3 for another mile or so (and I’m afraid I must insist, speed limits are in miles per hour). Finally, the road crosses the border one last time where the road again becomes the N54 (and the speed limit debate is finally settled in favour of kilometres per hour).

Who would have thought the border could be such fun?


  1. Even better is that they make re-classifications and then don’t enforce them!! I have been waiting and watching out for some, for example the old A28 from Aughnacloy to Augher has been renamed as the B128…..but still no change! Great wee article here, its mad how odd some of these route numbers are!! 🙂

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