St Cedma’s – A Colourful Church with a Thousand Year History
The picturesque and ancient church of St Cedma, has a long and interesting history, dating over 1,000 years. Situated in the coastal town of Larne, in the civil parish of Inver in County Antrim, the walled church and graveyard contains many historic artefacts as well as fine examples of 20th century artistry.
The area itself, has been occupied since Mesolithic times. In the early Chrisian period there were three churches in the region – Drumalis, Invermore and Inverbeg. Inver comes from the Irish meaning ‘mouth of a river’.
In the 6th century Invermore was a chapel of the Augustinian Friars. The land here was fertile and the River Inver ran close by on its way into Larne Lough. This would provide the monks with water, fishing and ground to grow crops, enabling the community to be self-sufficient. This in turn became the site of St Cedma Church.
Timeline: Church of St Cedma of Yver
In 1306 the church of St Cedma of Yver is listed in the Papal taxation records at four and a half marks.
In 1350 a Norman-style church was constructed on the site. Part of the walls of this 14th century church are incorporated in today’s church building.
In the 15th century, St Cedma’s was occupied by the 3rd Order of St Francis, founded in 1221. This was an organisation of laymen and laywomen who provided medical and hospital services for the poor.
During the English Reformation, St Cedma’s passed into Protestant hands (in common with all Catholic churches in Ireland, England and Wales).
In Plantation times (1609-1690), the church and its adjoining lands were ‘granted’ to Scotsman James Hamilton (later Lord Clandeboye). Subsequently the area was given to the infamous Arthur Chichester.
During the brutal Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the 17th century, St Cedma’s was in use by the Presbyterian congregation. However, in 1660 with the Restoration of the Monarchy, it again became a Church of Ireland place of worship and the responsibility of the Dean of Connor.
In the early 19th century, St Cedma’s was re-roofed and re-plastered. It was also at this time that the tower was added. The original spire was demolished in 1826 as it was in a dangerous condition. The new square tower was erected in 1828 to the same height. The clock was added in 1999. The old entrance to the spire, now bricked-up, is dated 1788.
Samuel Patrick Close, Architect
In the 1870’s the church was extensively renovated. The architect employed for the project was Samuel Patrick Close. He redesigned the church roof and raised the Chancel [altar area] so it was slightly elevated from the main church building. The church itself is constructed of Ballygalley stone, and is quite compact measuring 27.5m long by 9m wide.
Samuel Patrick Close was born in 1842 in Kilmaine in County Mayo. His father, Robert Shaw Close was the local rector and his mother was Sarah Mills.
An accident when he was 18, resulted in Samuel losing an eye and so ruled out a career in the army. Instead, the young man pursued his interest in architecture. In 1862 he moved to Belfast and became articled to the prestigious firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon.
He was engaged mainly in work in the Belfast, Carrickfergus and Larne area. In 1872 Close established his own architectural business at 53 Waring Street and in 1899 he moved to Donegall Square.
On 17th September 1878 Samuel married Lucinda Frances Burleigh, the daughter of a County Antrim Justice of the Peace. The wedding took place in the Church of Ireland parish church in Carrickfergus.
Their son Richard Mills Close, entered the family firm in 1908 and made partner in 1910. Lucinda passed away in 1920, in the home her husband had designed, Fodeen in Carrickfergus.
Samuel died a few years later on 2nd August 1925. He left an estate of £815 17s.
Some of Close’s more notable works are the Olderfleet Hotel in Larne (1878), the Methodist Church in Carrickfergus (1882) and Drumalis House in Larne .
“Close has left a distinct and definite mark on the architecture of the city of his adoption; his courteous ways, his instinctive avoidance of all publicity, his bashfulness, his rugged towering figure, and mild, dulcet brogue, his artistic taste and painstaking skill should be held in deep and kindly remembrance, just as his architecture will endure for other eyes and other ages to look upon and admire”Francis Joseph Bigger, Belfast Newsletter 27th August 1925
Interior of St Cedma’s
The interior of St Cedma’s, though small is bright and airy. Like most Christian churches it faces east to catch the morning sun, and as a symbol of Christ’s Second Coming.
The octagonal baptismal font, near the entrance is composed of cream Caen stone and was designed by Samuel P Close in 1878. An earlier black marble font, which dates from Cromwellian times, was inserted into the East Wall behind the altar. It was then used as a ‘piscina’ for the washing of the sacred vessels.
The highly-polished pews are made of dark wood. The pulpit, unusually, is constructed of various types of County Antrim stone. It was a gift from William A Traille of Ballylough House, Bushmills. Traille was the managing director and an engineer with the Geological Survey of Ireland.
The ceiling of the Chancel was also designed by Close. It is divided into 32 separate panels. Each is decorated with a religious sign, hand-painted in gold on a green canvas. The symbols represent the apostles, the Blessed Trinity and also Celtic and ancient Greek imagery.
The floor of the Chancel is adorned with encaustic tiles, again reflecting Christian emblems. These were donated by James Chaine of Carncastle (see link below to post on Olderfleet Castle, Larne).
St Cedma’s Windows
However, St Cedma’s is particularly striking because of its numerous colourful stained-glass windows.
Many of these were donated by or dedicated to, past parishioners. Two windows in the Nave North Wall are the Annunciation and the Nativity presented by Sir Hugh Smiley in memory of his mother in 1898; and Christ Healing the Lame in respect of the Houston family of Larne in 1897.
The triple East Window, known as the Ascension Window, was erected in 1878 in memory of Charles McGarel by Sir James McGarel Hogg, 2nd Baron of Magheramorne. McGarel made his fortune from his sugar plantations in South America. He is buried in St Cedma’s graveyard.
The Lepers’ Squint
One window that is of special interest is a narrow opening, now depicting Our Lord with the Little Children. In earlier times this is where lepers and others suffering from infectious illnesses would watch religious ceremonies. These poor folk would stand on a boulder outside the unglazed window, so they could partake of the service but also minimise the spread of disease. The window is known as the Lepers’ Squint.
On the exterior wall above the Lepers’ Squint is a much-weathered carved sandstone head. This is believed to be a likeness of St Cedma.
St Cedma’s also contains a pair of stained-glass windows designed and made by the noted Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes. On the Nave South Wall is Christ with Martha and Mary at the Raising of Lazarus. On the same wall is a window depicting St Patrick and St Columba. This was dedicated to Sir Hugh Smiley of Drumalis House and presented in 1925 by his daughter Eileen.
Wilhelmina Margaret Geddes was born on 25th May 1887, the first child of William Geddes and Eliza Jane Stafford.
Although usually recorded as Geddes, in the birth, marriage and death registers as well as the census records the surname is spelled Geddis. She was born on her maternal grandparent’s farm at Drumreilly Cottage in County Leitrim. Her father’s parents were also farmers, coming from Tandragee in County Armagh. William Geddes had worked his way up, labouring on the railways until he became a site engineer for the Cavan, Leitrim and Roscommon Railway Company.
The Geddes family relocated to Belfast, where William was listed as a builder. The couple had 3 further children –Mary Ethel born in 1889 at 17 Wellesley Avenue and William Stafford  and Florence Jane  at 17 Windsor Park.
Wilhelmina attended Methodist College on the Malone Road. Her talent for drawing was quickly recognised and she subsequently studied at the Belfast School of Art. Here she was encouraged and supported by other female artists such as the sculptress Rosamond Praeger (see link below to post on Rosamond Praeger – Holywood’s trail-blazing artist), and portrait painter Sarah Purser.
Wilhelmina became interested in working with glass and moved to Dublin to work under established stained-glass expert William Orpen.
In 1910 Geddes joined the co-operative glass workshop An Tur Gloire. She was commissioned to produce work for churches throughout Ireland. These included St Ann’s in Dawson Street Dublin, St Ninnidh’s Church in County Fermanagh, the Seamans’ Memorial Window at St Molaise in Monrea and the Cuthbert Memorial Window at the Presbyterian Assembly Hall in Belfast.
In 1911 the Geddes family were living at 64 Malborough Park in a house built by William Geddes named Ermington. Florence and Mary were studying music and brother William was a medical student. When William (junior) qualified as a doctor the family moved to Ulsterville House at 117 Lisburn Road, where William also set up his medical practice.
In 1925 Wilhelmina moved to London and began working at the prestigious Glass House in Fulham. Her reputation was spreading and she began to receive international commissions. She designed the War Memorial Window for St Bartholomew’s Church in Ontario, Canada, the Lampeter Window for St Peter’s Church in Wales, the King Albert Memorial Window for St Martin’s Cathedral in Ypres, Belgium and the Moorehouse Memorial Window at Karori Cemetery in New Zealand, among others.
“In the hands of an artist of the calibre of Wilhelmina Geddes, a powerful draughtmanship combined with consummate craft skill create a monumental style which ranks amongst the highest achievements in stained glass”Peter Cormack, Women Stained Glass Artists of the Arts and Craft Movement, 1985
The Death of Wilhelmina Geddes
Unfortunately, Wilhelmina Geddes suffered ill-health throughout her life and although well-recognised in artistic circles, was never a commercial success.
Wilhelmina died on 10th August 1955 in London aged 68 in near poverty.
She is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery in County Antrim along with her mother Eliza and younger sister Mary Ethel.
“Despite a growing appreciation for her powerfully expressive, masterfully crafted stained glass, graphics and needlework, her work has not yet received due attention”,Nicola Gordon Bowe Wilhelmina Geddes Life and Work 2015
St Cedma’s Church Grounds
To enter the Church grounds, one passes through a beautiful lynch-gate. This was restored in 1958 by Crawford Leitch and is made from Burma teak. The motto reads ‘Teach Us To Number Our Days’.
It was traditional for coffin-bearers to have a few minutes respite within the gates before carrying the deceased the rest of the way into the church.
The graveyard contains many ancient headstones and grave markers. The earliest that are still (barely) legible belong to James Murdoch 1677 and Hugh Porter 1694 ‘marchant of Learne and his vif Katrin’.
Up until 1870 the cemetery was used by all denominations living in the area.
The pathway towards the church is lined with old yew trees. This was common in graveyards as the yew is said to ward off evil spirits and guide the soul to heaven.
The Graveyard at St Cedma’s
The headstones marking the graves vary in style and construction depending on funereal fashions and a family’s financial situation.
Graves close to the church walls were the more desirable. Some headstones bear the coat of arms of the family. An example of this is the Houston marker which is engraved with an hourglass and the motto ‘in time’.
The Carley headstone is engraved with a ledger and two dragon heads with the motto ‘Humilitate’.
Some local ministers from the area are also interred in this graveyard. In one instance in the same plot – Josias Clugston (1775) Minister of Larne & Kilwaughter Old Presbyterian Church and his successor Robert Sinclair (1795).
The McNeil plot contains at least 10 family members, including Malcolm McNeil who passed away in 1866. He is credited with being the first person to use mules as draught animals in Islandmagee.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the port of Larne saw many Irish and Scots-Irish emigrate to America and further afield. Although interred abroad their names were often engraved on family headstones in remembrance.
- William Bruce died New Orleans 23rd August 1890 aged 47
- John Nickle died New York 18th August 1834 aged 30
- William Campbell died Pensacola 17th January 1911 aged 44
- Francis McCambridge Dixon died Westpoint U S 25th June 1866 aged 30 (died from sunstroke)
- Samuel Kirkpatrick died New York 18th January 1868 aged 54
- Alexander Holmes died in Rio de Janeiro April 1826
- William Turner died Beechworth, Australia 4th May 1897
The news of the death of three sons, below, must have been heart-breaking for the Graham family
- Alexander Graham died at Vera Cruz 15th June 1845 aged 19
- James Graham died at George Town, Demerara 22nd January 1849 aged 27
- William Graham died at Cincinnati 22nd March 1856 aged 30
Many of the headstones in St Cedma’s graveyard reflect Larne’s maritime connections
- Robert Caldwell died 29th August 1886 Chief Officer of SS Bengore Head
- Samuel Simpson died 24th February 1870 Master Mariner
- George Gillmer died 22nd October 1775 Surveyor of the Port of Larne
- Hugh McGugin died 12th August 1887 Chief Officer of the Coast Guard
The headstone (now broken) of Charles Marshall reads
“Sacred to the memory of Chas. H Marshall, Lieut. R N, who died 22nd Sept 1835 aged 44 years. He entered the navy at the age of 11 and was actively engaged at the Battle of Trafalgar”Headstone Inscription: Charles Marshall
Another, almost illegible grave marker, refers to the sinking of the sloop Nancy. The first mate Mallum with all the crew died on 17th November 1789 drowned in the icy waters of Larne Lough.
Sadly, many grave markers reflect the high infant mortality rate of the time.
Erected by Robert Adams in memory of his son William Adams who departed this life Nov 1853 aged 1 year. Also his son James Nov 1st 1863 aged 1 year. Also Eliza Jane, July 10th 1865 aged 10 years. Also Mary, March 8th 1866 aged 8 years. Also Robert, Sept 4th 1868 aged 5 months.Headstone Inscription
Here lyth ye bodys of 2 children of John Caldwell
Ealenor aged 3 years & Janet 1 year died both in Nov 1762
Here are deposited the remains of John Hay who died 17th June 1826 aged 77 years. And of Margaret his wife who died in 1807 aged 53 years. Also eleven of their children.
One unusual headstone on the inner church perimeter wall near to today’s parish office is that of a much-loved pet!
“For 12 years the faithful and favourite terrier dog of Thomas Barklie, Inver” (Sting died in 1883)
St Cedma’s Exterior
The exterior of St Cedma’s also bears some symbols with quasi-pagan references.
A carved rosette, unusually featuring three rings of petals, is thought to represent a pre-Christian reverence towards plants and animals.
Above the 19th century entrance was discovered a carving thought to the Green Man of Celtic mythology.
The Church of St Cedma’s is notable for its fascinating history but what is truly remarkable is that it is still a functioning religious establishment providing for its congregation. The graveyard was in use until fairly recent times.
“It is the only medieval burying ground in the combined parishes of Larne and Inver to continue in use to modern times”George Rutherford Old Families of Larne and District 2004
The cemetery reflects not only the story of Larne but of generations of local families.
“The remains of the late Sam Houston who died 24th Novr. 1827 aged 74 years are interred here. This monument also marks the burying ground of his forefathers for nearly two centuries as the surrounding headstones testify”
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