Dad wanted to do something meaningful - Frank Carson's son on £50,000 gift from his father's estate
Tony Carson, son of legendary comic Frank, talks candidly about how his dad's dream was to promote integrated education... and how his mum died of a broken heart
The son of legendary Belfast comedian Frank Carson will today announce a substantial £50,000 gift from his late father's estate to continue the work he started in the final years of his life to promote integrated education in Northern Ireland.
And in a special ceremony, which Tony Carson says would have made his father very proud, young people from across Northern Ireland will benefit from the late, great comic's legacy when they gather for the annual Carson Awards.
In his frankest interview yet about his famous dad, who was one of Northern Ireland's best-loved comedians, Tony Carson revealed how, in his final weeks, his father struggled to accept he was going to die.
Frank passed away in February 2012 - eight months after being diagnosed with cancer of the stomach. He came through successful surgery, only to discover the disease had spread to his lungs and was incurable.
"Dad didn't want to die - he wasn't ready to go," says Tony.
And in another poignant revelation, Tony says he believes his mum, Ruth, died in January 2015 from a broken heart.
Frank and Ruth had been childhood sweethearts and were married for more than 60 years and Tony says his mum was so lost without "her fighting partner" that she developed dementia shortly after his death.
One of the couple's three children - Tony has a brother, Aidan, and sister, Majella - he also confirmed that his dad, who made millions of people happy during his lifetime, had left a fortune of millions ... contrary to national newspaper reports that he died penniless.
A father of four, who now lives between London and Spain, Tony (60) is an entrepreneur, with business interests all over the UK and Ireland.
As he prepared to fly to Northern Ireland last night for today's ceremony, he revealed how much the Carson Bursaries for integrated education meant to both his dad and himself.
Today's Carson Awards are part of a charity scheme father and son started together and is run by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), designed to support and reward creative work in integrated schools.
Tony says his dad would have loved to have been in the thick of today's celebrations: "Everyone knows my dad loved a crowd and he would have loved to have been here to join in.
"He loved young people and the arts were also close to his heart, which is why we set up the awards in the first place.
"He wanted to do something meaningful and the bursary helps kids to do art projects in a meaningful way on the topic of integration, which gets them to think about it and express it in their own personal artistic way.
"It's great, because it benefits kids in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general, and was a chance for him and myself to put something meaningful back into society."
Frank was not just known for his famous one-liners - "It's a Cracker" and "It's the Way I tell 'em" - but also for his big heart and support of charities both here in Northern Ireland and across the UK.
Eight years ago, both he and Tony teamed up to discuss how together they could make an impact and leave a lasting legacy for Frank in his native Northern Ireland.
The result was the launch in 2008 of their £100,000 bursary scheme for the Integrated Education Fund.
Tony explains: "As older men growing older together - I've just turned 60 and dad would have been 90 this year - we became more akin and understood each other more because of our life experiences.
"Dad was always a massive charity man and had such a big heart. He would have gone to the opening of an envelope if it would have helped someone.
"We talked about doing something that would be meaningful for both of us and we wanted to try and do something back home, something that really resonated with us and would make a difference to society at large.
"Integrated education is something we both felt could help towards a 'cure' for Northern Ireland. If you can get kids mixing with each other, then you would hope that will go through society and generations to come."
Tony was born in Belfast and grew up on the Antrim Road until the age of 14, when the family moved to England as Frank's career as a comedian was taking off.
Initially, he says, they moved to a leafy suburb of Liverpool, but his mother felt so cut off that a year later they made the move to Blackpool, where she felt much more at home and where both she and Frank ended their days.
Although his own children - Hanna (18), Tara (16), Francesca (12) and Padraig (8) - were not born in Northern Ireland, Tony says they all feel an affinity with Belfast because of their grandparents. His daughter Hannah has chosen to study at Queen's University and Francesca insists on being called Frankie because of her granddad.
The children currently live in Spain with Tony and their mum Edna while their dad works between Spain and the UK.
Frank's cancer diagnosis was a huge blow to the family and especially Frank himself, who Tony says was not ready to stop living.
He says: "Dad was a big, giving, loving sort of a guy and was very good to everyone. He was very generous, even foolishly so sometimes.
"He didn't want to go; he couldn't believe he was on his way out. He was so strong. He was 85, but he was still doing crosswords every day and constantly on the phone badgering everyone and still very active.
"He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and went through surgery, which was successful, but then discovered afterwards that the cancer must have gone through the stomach wall into the lungs and at his age there was nothing that could be done about it.
"It was pretty quick after that, he only had seven or eight months and he wasn't happy. He didn't moan, he just went quiet as if he was in shock trying to deal with the reality of it.
"He wanted to keep going and entertaining, giving and getting on with it. He was always a bit of an action man.
"He did have 85 years and I always say to people it was like he was 280, not 85, because he lived the life of three people. He was a massive consumer of life. He enjoyed himself and gave a lot to other people."
Still grieving the massive loss of their beloved dad and grandad, the family then had to watch as Ruth succumbed very quickly to dementia.
Tony is convinced the illness was brought on by the grief she suffered at losing her life partner and the man she had been married to for 60 years.
He says: "As soon as dad went, dementia set in, because she had lost her fighting partner. The two of them were always at each other, in the nicest possible way, and she had lost her partner and her interest in life paled after that. Dementia took her away and it wasn't pretty."
In the year after Frank's death, the family had to contend with headlines in the national newspapers reporting that, despite his popularity on TV and performing at around 80 events a year, Frank had died penniless.
The reports claimed he had hoped to leave property to his children, but was unable to and that he died with just £8,013 in the bank, once his debts and expenses were paid.
Tony says: "The £8,000 dad had in his bank was the exact amount needed to pay the solicitors for dealing with his estate. It was all left in trust before he died to my mother, who paid £1m in tax on it.
"Dad had property in Spain, the south of Ireland and the UK and all sorts of investments. He was pretty wealthy by anybody's standards.
"He bequeathed £50,000 to the integrated education fund bursary and left money to a number of other charities, so he was still giving from beyond the grave.
"He made what is known as a 'lifetime will', which put everything he had in trust for my mother, which is a quirk of the system, but it meant when he died it looked like he had nothing, when in fact he had several million. So, he died deliberately penniless."
Frank had been writing an autobiography - Rebel Without a Pause - which, because of his busy lifestyle, he never got to finish.
Shortly after his death, Tony was clearing out his parents' Spanish holiday home when he discovered a number of audio tapes his dad had recorded about his life.
This highly personal material has been handed over to local actor and director Dan Gordon, who has written a play about the great man's life.
Says Tony: "Dan has a good amount of information on the inner man and his life experiences. He has been very diligent, travelling widely to meet and talk to people who were close to dad. I think the play is just about ready to go and we are really looking forward to it."
Dan will be joining Tony at today's prize giving in memory of Frank, where he will compere the event.
Students and staff from a dozen integrated primary schools and colleges will gather at Hazelwood Integrated College, along with Integrated Education Fund representatives.
Guests will enjoy a display of winning artwork as well as short videos, drama from Brownlow Integrated College and music from Harmony North, a choir made up from schools of different types based in north Belfast.