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Meet New Zealand couple deemed too old to drive in Northern Ireland

Tourists planing to trace their family roots

Travelling all the way from New Zealand to Glenarm to research their family history, Terry (84) and Alison (76) Kelso were all set to spend what they hoped would be a fascinating 15 weeks of sightseeing and discovery. But, as soon as they arrived, their plans were stalled when they learned they couldn't get insurance to drive. Leona O'Neill hears what happened next.

An elderly couple from New Zealand say they have been overwhelmed by the support of the "caring, compassionate and lovely" people of Northern Ireland after they found themselves stranded without a car while on a three-month holiday here.

Alison Kelso (76) and her husband Terry from Nelson in New Zealand booked a 15-week holiday in Glenarm, Co Antrim, with the aim of researching Terry's Northern Irish roots.

When they arrived and attempted to purchase a car for their trip, they were told they were "too old to be insured" and their dreams of seeing Terry's family homestead in Banbridge and graves in Mullusk went up in smoke.

So, the couple had been walking to nearby destinations or availing of public transport until the people of Northern Ireland stepped in and came to their aid.

Despite their woes, Alison says that this - probably their last ever trip to Northern Ireland - has been a memorable one.

Although Terry was born in Banbridge, he has lived in New Zealand for 63 years.

"He's pretty well a Kiwi now," says Alison.

"We met when we both worked for the ANZ Bank in New Zealand. Terry was a banker before he left Northern Ireland and came to work where I was, in Nelson, in 1955. He came to New Zealand by ship, as you did in those days.

"I had just started as a junior banker when Terry arrived at the bank. We were workmates, we're married for 56 years now and have four children - Michael (55) a schoolteacher in Istanbul, Jenny (54), a receptionist, and 50-year-old identical twins Richard, who works in IT in Sweden, and Stephen, who is a real estate agent in Nelson."

Alison explains that the couple planned a 15-week stay in Northern Ireland to give them plenty of time to research Terry's ancestry, and they plan to begin their homeward journey on August 9.

She adds: "This is our third visit and it will probably be our last. Terry is 84 years old and the journey to Belfast took us 48 hours. It is such an horrendous flight from New Zealand. It wasn't much fun. So we won't be coming back again."

Alison explains that she and Terry had intended to buy a car for their time in Northern Ireland because of the length of their stay here - as hiring one would have worked out more expensive.

"The problems started when we couldn't get a car because we couldn't get insurance to be able to drive it," she says.

"We planned to come here and buy a little car. We are here for 15 weeks and we couldn't afford to hire one for that time, so we thought we would buy a vehicle and then sell it before we go home."

But they hadn't reckoned on their plans being scuppered by insurance problems.

"It wasn't until we got here that we realised that we are not allowed to drive here because we couldn't get insurance at our age," Alison says. "So all our plans turned to custard because we were in Glenarm, which is where we have the holiday home, and we had no transport to do all the things we wanted to do.

"It felt really horrible. We drive our cars every day at home. We are very independent.

"It was awful to be told we were past our use-by date and we weren't allowed to drive here.

"We have current New Zealand licences and, before we left there, I checked to make sure that our licences would be valid here and we were told 'yes'. So we thought that would be okay, there would be no problems."

However, the visitors were somewhat shocked to be told that this was not the case.

"So we turned up here and went to buy our car and were told that no, we couldn't actually drive here because the insurance companies won't let us," Alison recalls.

"Our insurance broker in Larne checked with every insurance company going, and they all said the same thing, which was no. They would not let anyone in this country under the age of 20 and over the age of 70 because they say the risk is too great and they have no history of the driving record.

"So the policy is just 'no, you can't drive'."

The New Zealand grandmother of eight boys says she was astounded by the generosity of the Northern Irish people when they heard of their dilemma and the couple have now made life-long friends here.

"We started off doing a lot of walking," she says. "We have walked from Carnlough to Glenarm and back. But then the story was on BBC Radio Ulster's The Nolan Show and we were inundated with offers of help.

"We are so grateful to the show for their help. It was totally overwhelming and very humbling to get such an incredible response from total strangers.

"We have gradually made friends with people who have offered us rides to places, to go to Larne to do our shopping, or if they have been going anywhere they say that their back seat is free and we can take it.

"We have made a lot of wonderful friends that we would not have otherwise made if we'd had a car. But it is actually rather humiliating to have to rely on the generosity of strangers, to be honest.

"Had we known this was going to be the case, there is no way that we would have come for such a length of time," she said.

"We have had offers from people all over Northern Ireland to help us. People from Londonderry all the way down to Newcastle offering to take us places and show us around. One man in Derry even offered us a private tour all around Northern Ireland.

"Other people have offered us days out, they've just got in contact and said that they weren't busy on Friday, that they'd like to take us wherever we'd like to go.

"Someone in Antrim, who specialises in graves and genealogy in Templepatrick, has offered to help us research Terry's family roots.

"We plan to do that in the next few days. That is the first time we have really been able to look properly into the family history. So that will be amazing to do.

"It's been absolutely astonishing. We didn't ask for this, we didn't ask for charity or for people to help us out. We were trying to expose the policy of the insurance companies and the huge discrimination against us and everyone in our situation."

Alison says that the couple will go home with "lovely memories" of Northern Ireland, despite the wheels initially coming off their trip.

"Initially we were very annoyed," she says. "My husband just wanted to get on the first plane and go home again, he was so frustrated and annoyed. But the experience has helped us to make a lot of great friends, life-long friends. Being in a little village like Glenarm, we know just about everybody now. It has had its compensations.

"And after all the offers of help we have received we have come to the conclusion that this is one fantastic country, full of really lovely, caring and compassionate people. And we will go home with really great feelings about this country and this trip," Alison adds.

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