Thursday 29 September 2016

Colm O'Rourke: Farewell to one of the greatest GAA men ever

Dave Billings gave so much, as a general and a footsoldier, says Colm O’Rourke

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:38

Dave Billings
Dave Billings
The tricolour flies at half-mast while the UCD team observe a minute silence in honour of the late Dave Billings

The warm and generous tributes paid to Dave Billings last week were all greatly deserved. No words could adequately describe this giant of a man who left his mark on so many parts of the GAA but mainly on the ordinary people he came across. He had an infectious love of Gaelic games and his generosity of spirit reached out to everyone.

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I first came across ‘Billings’ (as he was always called) 40 years ago when I started in UCD and he was a more mature student. He played his club football for St Vincent’s, who were public enemy number one in UCD at the time after several dirty county finals between the two sides. But that never bothered him in the slightest when he played for UCD. He was a tough, mean corner-back of the old school. Basically, old school corner-backs did what they liked to nippy corner-forwards.

In a Sigerson Cup final in Galway, maybe in 1977, a spectator took exception to his marking methods and spat down on him as he was going in at half-time. Dave took off up into the stand after the young man, who is probably still running. 

On another occasion there was a fairly tough training session going on in UCD and little in the way of whistle being used by Eugene McGee, our manager. Billings had his nose smashed and was covered in blood on the ground. Pat O’Neill took a look at it and told him it was broken. Dave said, “straighten it” and the doc took him at his word, put his knee on the chest  and after a crunch and some more awful noises, Billings jumped up, wiped the blood away with both sleeves of his jersey and asked McGee, “whose free is it anyway?”. It was that type of warrior spirit that we all admired in him.

The tricolour flies at half-mast while the UCD team observe a minute silence in honour of the late Dave Billings
The tricolour flies at half-mast while the UCD team observe a minute silence in honour of the late Dave Billings

When he went back to UCD as the GAA executive he found a natural home. He had a way with young players and they loved him because he cared for them in every way. Often times I rang him about players from our school and before you could tell him anything he nearly always knew everything. Courses were sussed out, accommodation organised, whatever you wanted, he tried his best to sort it out.

When he went into management he was as contrary and awkward on the line as the best, but while he had an uncanny ability to fight with nearly everyone during a game, he would fall out with no one.

Some years ago I was at a match in UCD under lights and Billings was giving the referee plenty of it from the off. Eventually the ref was going to send him off and Dave’s response was that if he did that he would turn off the lights and leave the ref and the players in the dark. And he was in charge of the lights. When the match was over himself and the ref were the best of friends.

When he graduated to being a selector on the Dublin team, he was not one of those who pretended not to read the papers. If he thought I was being unfair on the Dubs he just picked up the phone and let me have it, but if there was something he agreed with he would do the same and I will miss his regular early Sunday morning texts.

Dave Billings was one of the greatest GAA men ever and I am not prone to exaggeration. He saw more games, hurling and football, every year than probably any other man I ever knew. Most of them were viewed far from the madding crowd, he never did anything for show. He was a general and a footsoldier and often both at the same time: he took down nets and put up flags, washed gear, arranged pitches and a thousand other things. He was happiest with a bag of balls on his back or a sack of hurleys in his hand. The outfit never changed much either. In cold weather it was the Dublin jacket, rumpled shirt, tracksuit bottoms and a pair of old boots. He certainly never graduated from the Paul Galvin school of fashion.

Dave Billings was a wonderful human being who gave a lot and that made him happy.  That is his legacy. And his best work was done quietly, as he did not seem to have any ego to satisfy. He will be missed by everyone and especially so in St Vincent’s and UCD where he never stopped working.

Most of all he will be missed by his wife Annette and children Liam, Cathal, Hannah and Neal. To them and all his close friends sincere sympathy on the loss of a great and good man.

Read more: Colm O'Rourke: Winds of change needed to blow away football cobwebs

Bernard Brogan celebrates with former Dublin manager Garda Paul Caffrey and former selector Dave Billings, left
Bernard Brogan celebrates with former Dublin manager Garda Paul Caffrey and former selector Dave Billings, left

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