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'Ray of sunshine' Frank Carson remembered

Hundreds line the streets for comedian's funeral

Popular comedian Frank Carson was still making his fans laugh even at his funeral today.

As his coffin was carried from a church in Belfast, his famous gag - a song called "It's a Cracker" that he recorded with children - was played over a public address system to crowds of well-wishers lining the streets outside and many more watching on television.

Carson was hailed in the city where he grew up as "a ray of sunshine" and the "people's man".

Well-wishers watched as the comic's coffin was taken on an hour-long tour of the city in which he grew up, with the recording of him in full flow producing fond mirth and applause.

He sang with children from Blackpool: "Everywhere I go somebody shouts 'hello, you are a cracker'.

"I really think you are grand, do you mind if I shook your hand, I am in love with all of you.

"Don't ever wear a frown, because you will only get me down. Everybody in this big wide world, to be a cracker like you."

Carson, who died last month aged 85 at his home in Blackpool, Lancashire, had been ill for some time. He was a regular on Irish and British TV during his career.

Broadcaster Eamonn Holmes, comedians Lenny Henry, Stan Boardman and Roy Walker, sportsmen Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan and Pat Jennings and singer Dana were among those attending funeral mass for the man who coined the catchphrases "It's a Cracker" and "It's the way I tell 'em", and a string of jokes.

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness was also present, as well as other political representatives, and carried the coffin.

A ripple of applause went through the crowd when the cortege from St Patrick's Catholic church stopped for a tribute from the Anglican dean of St Anne's Cathedral the Rev John Mann in a symbol of Carson's commitment to cross-community relations in Northern Ireland.

Requiem mass was led by retired Bishop of Derry, Bishop Edward Daly.

Bishop Daly said: "Frank made millions of people smile and laugh. He brightened up their lives. He was a prime minister of fun. That was his mission in life."

His family said: "He was a kind man, a people's man and always had time for everyone, none more so than his family."

Appearances on shows like Opportunity Knocks and The Comedians catapulted Carson to fame and he became a regular on children's series Tiswas, finding himself in demand across Britain and further afield for his stand-up comedy, which he performed while based in London, Liverpool, Blackpool or Balbriggan in the Irish Republic.

One of his last appearances was in the Variety Club's celebration of the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday last December, even though he had undergone an operation for stomach cancer earlier last year.

Television presenter Eamonn Holmes added: "He is one of the most famous sons of Ulster, that sums up what he means to everybody in Northern Ireland."

Today they turned out to bid him farewell.

The hearse pulled up outside St Patrick's, with the affectionate name Gaga by which his 10 grandchildren knew him, depicted in white flowers beside the coffin and green flowers on top.

His family, including his wife of 60 years Ruth, children Majella, Tony and Aidan and one great-grandchild, was dignified, Ruth dressed in a black hat and coat as she revisited the church where the couple married.

The chapel was packed with around 1,200 mourners, with many more outside, a large photo of Carson's grinning face prominently on display.

Bishop Daly, who booked him as a stand-up at the church's theatre in Londonderry in 1962 and became close friends, also achieved fame because of Bloody Sunday when he waved a blood-stained white handkerchief after British paratroopers in Londonderry opened fire on civil rights protesters. Carson himself was a paratrooper who served in the Middle East.

Bishop Daly recalled his friend's dedication to charity, which earned him an honorary title from Pope John Paul II, as well as his mischievous and rascally character.

"He had a paternal care for friends and colleagues, especially those in difficulties," he said.

In the last few years of his life he talked about his mortality and illness with the bishop.

"He lived that life to the full and lived it well and generously and he was like a ray of sunshine in a sometimes dark world," the bishop added.

The congregation poured on to the street to the strains of Carson singing "It's a Cracker" with some children, prompting warm applause.

Comedian Stan Boardman said: "He was a sort of uncle, everybody used to call him Uncle Frank.

"He did not offend anybody, his gags were brilliant and he was a funny man."

The coffin was carried and taken by car to nearby St Anne's Anglican Cathedral, where Dean the Rev John Mann read a prayer. Carson was devoted to cross-community work and helped promote integrated education in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants are educated separately.

The Rev Mann comforted friends and family then the cortege moved on, winding its way slowly through Belfast's busy shopping streets.

A trumpeter sounded the Last Post for the former paratrooper as the cortege paused outside Belfast city hall and a piper struck up.

He was then taken for burial at Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast, where a relative read a eulogy.