Firefighters formed a guard of honour at the funeral of former colleague Stuart Hilditch in Carrickfergus today (Friday).
Stuart, who was also a well-known local footballer, died on Tuesday after a courageous battle with illness.
Victoria Evangelical Hall was at capacity with mourners gathered too in the church grounds and along Victoria Road in the Co Antrim town for the service led by Pastor Drew Hamill.
Thirty-eight-year-old Stuart was the husband of Julie-anne and father of Megan, Paige and Jack.
The son of East Antrim DUP MLA David Hilditch and Wilma, Stuart played for Carrick Rangers, Barn United, Islandmagee and Wellington Rec.
Senior figures from the DUP including leader Arlene Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson joined MLAs, councillors, Loyal Orange Order representatives, former team-mates and members of the wider community for the afternoon service of thanksgiving for Stuart’s life.
Conveying “sincere and heartfelt sympathy to the entire family circle at this time”, Mr Hamill described Stuart as a “gentle giant” with a great sense of humour who liked to the be the “centre of fun”.
Born August 1 1981, Stuart went on to attend Sunnylands Primary School and Carrickfergus High School (now Carrickfergus Academy). After leaving school, he worked with Cannon Motors in his hometown and then council.
He joined NIFRS in 2005 and was, by all accounts, said Mr Hamill, “a terrific fireman, much liked as evidenced today by the attendance of his colleagues from the local station - his extended family”.
As a young goalkeeper Stuart played for Carrick Rangers and represented Northern Ireland at youth level. He later switched outfield proving to be a prolific striker with several East Antrim clubs.
“Passionate about football, Spurs, Carrick Rangers and Northern Ireland, he was a very talented footballer,” Mr Hamill added.
Supporting Carrick Rangers, Northern Ireland, and Spurs, along with his dad David and brother Michael, they were - based on the teams’ colours - the pastor joked, “the Green, White and Amber Army”.
Abide With Me, introduced as the “footballer’s song”, was song with gusto at the service with tributes also from two of Stuart’s children.
Interment took place at Victoria Cemetery. Donations in lieu of flowers were encouraged to Friends of The Cancer Centre (City Hospital, Belfast).