You can forgive lottery winners not having charity as the first thing on their minds..
But that wasn’t the case with Co Down couple Frances Connolly and her husband Patrick.
Despite scooping a staggering £115m almost two years ago, their initial thoughts weren’t of yachts, mansions, swimming pools and supercars.
Rather, the Moira natives immediately began giving away their fortune to family, friends and charities.
“Everybody asks ‘how do you cope with that kind of money?’” Frances said.
“Well, we didn’t cope with that kind of money because we started getting rid of it within a week.
“I have no idea what it’s like to be a 115-times millionaire because I never was — or, at least, I was for about 25 minutes.”
Hours after winning £114.9m — an amount most human beings simply could not imagine — on New Year’s Day 2019, Frances (54) and Patrick (56) a businessman, compiled names of friends and family they wanted to help.
“That was an easy list — I started with them, went to neighbours, then the people who had looked after the kids when they were little” she said.
“We’ve given direct gifts to between 150 and 175 families... and every single person we’ve given money to has actually passed it on to other people.”
Following their win, Frances and Patrick, launched two charities — the PFC Trust to help people in and around Hartlepool (where they set up home as a young married couple), and the Kathleen Graham Trust in memory of Frances’ mother, who died at Christmas 2017.
“Mummy died the year before we won,” Frances said.
“She was the most generous woman you could ever meet. She would have given you the last penny in her purse. She would have loved putting on a big hat and playing Lady Bountiful all over the place, and she’d have had the money given away faster than me.”
Frances added: “For the anniversary of my mum’s death I was running a knitting company and I made packs of blankets and hats and jumpers for the premature baby unit. I’ve never turned my back where there was a need I came across my entire life.”
To date, the Co Down lottery winner, who was speaking publicly for the first time, said they have given away half of their fortune to others in the biggest ever Lottery giveaway, helping “thousands” of people, with Frances having lost count of “the number of times I’ve cried my eyes out” following a recipient’s response to her generosity.
Frances dismissed suggestions that new found wealth could be as much a burden as a blessing.
“This is just love and joy on a permanent basis,” she said.
“How could this be a burden? It’s just like winning the lottery every day.”
Yet, Frances, who suffers from a medical condition that has her destined for a wheelchair, is also all too aware that fabulous wealth can’t buy you everything.
“My auntie told me I had Perthes’ disease as a kid,” she revealed.
“When I was a baby I had a big metal frame around my hips; my dad used to be able to pick me up with the back of the frame.
“I just managed. I’ve always done plenty of sport but about 15 years ago my cruciate ligament went and all of a sudden the joints went so my mobility is really poor.”
She told how she spent years “sitting on a chair, unable to go anywhere or do anything”.
“I actually spent about three years in Northern Ireland sitting on a chair because I couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything,” she confided.
“I had an operation the year before we won the lottery and it has got me back on my feet again for a bit but I will eventually not be able to walk so I’m preparing for that.”
But Frances told the Belfast Telegraph that it’s not something that scares her at all.
The mother of three daughters — Katrina (32) and twins Natalie and Fiona (25) — added: “What can you do about it? You just have to get on with it.”
She also revealed to this newspaper that her health condition was a factor in her choice of home. Although she had her heart set on a bungalow, estate agents insisted on showing her a castle and a 15-bed stately home which came with an entire village “somewhere in the north east” of England.
But she’s perfectly happy in her current abode — “a five bedroom, brick-built house with good sized rooms and a couple of acres of garden” which she “found on the internet”.
The Connollys’ generosity was especially appreciated during the ongoing pandemic.
In Northern Ireland, the couple bought new sewing machines for charity workers who were making PPE during Covid, as well as sending food parcels to many sheltering alone.
The pair also paid for hundreds of elderly patients in nursing homes to have iPads to Facetime their families — including Frances’ great aunt Sheila Graham — and for young carers to be able to learn from home.
“Sheila’s home in Omagh was one of the ones that got tables to keep people from being isolated; she was able to talk to my 75-year-old father Frank in Essex over Skype,” Frances said.
Being filthy rich does, however, take some managing.
“I get up at 6am so I can answer all the messages and emails people have sent me before I start a day’s work,” she said.
“Then Paddy gets up and makes me my breakfast.”
When asked what a multi-millionaire has for breakfast she replied: “Pancakes and pineapple juice this morning...”
Frances, now based in Hartlepool, spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland in the pre-Covid days, and admitted that she always has got a buzz out of helping others.
The businesswoman added that she has “been doing voluntary work since I was nine”.
“Obviously I’m able to do it now on a much bigger scale and the buzz is bigger because you’re actually making a massive difference,” she said.
Apart from splashing out on “some nice bits of jewellery” and “more clothes than I need” Frances admitted that she still looks for bargains.
One of her most recent purchases was 20 bottles of Bollinger champagne for people working on the front line.
“Patrick and I watched a programme on Monaco recently, and somebody spent £23,000 on a single bottle of champagne,” Frances, who doesn’t drink alcohol, said.
“I found a special offer on champagne for £25 a bottle, and I’m saving them to hand out to people who deserve some gratitude.”
In the meantime, her plans for 2021 include doing a PhD in clinical psychology — and writing a book about her good fortune.
Frances said that while money hasn’t changed her as a person, “it does change how you live”.
“We’re living in a nicer house, driving nicer cars, I can make a shopping list and, miraculously, my PA just has everything in the fridge for me and it’d be absolutely amazing,” she said.
“If I want to go and stay in a hotel I can just do that but it doesn’t change who you are.
“We have come into money late. If you’d come to it when you’re young, you’d maybe let it change how you live a bit more.”