THIS weekend is a big one for UCD GAA. The college’s ladies’ senior Gaelic football team will take on UCC in the semi-finals of the O’Connor Cup at GMIT on Friday 10th March, hoping to succeed where their male counterparts failed in retaining the trophy they claimed in 2016.
UCD’s double success last year – the ladies and men winning the O’Connor and Sigerson Cups – was fitting, coming in the first year for nineteen years that UCD GAA was without its Gaelic games executive Dave Billings, who passed away in April 2015.
I can remember bringing a couple of footballs up to the pitches in front of the Student Centre (just after starting off in the college as a Fresher) and proceeding to spend about twenty minutes sprinting back and forth chasing various wayward efforts. At that point a figure came strolling purposefully towards the pitch, walking a very definite line towards my (now deeply exhausted) self.
Anticipating being booted off the pitch – and perhaps lightly scolded for daring to haunt such a pristine surface with such ineffectual talents – I quickly gathered my belongings. But there needn’t have been any fear of reprimand. Dave Billings approached with a nod of the head and a curiosity about what club and county I was from; upon hearing the response, he immediately named someone from the same club who had hopped ball at UCD in the recent past.
There was, he said, a GAA club in UCD that you could join, with training on a Tuesday and Thursday evening at the very same pitches. With a wave, he turned back and returned to the Student Centre, another student’s initiation into UCD made a little bit easier by his simple intervention.
No doubt it was this sort of action that UCD’s Head of Sport, Brian Mullins, was referring to in his tribute to Billings in 2015. Mullins wrote that Billings “shaped the lives of thousands of students, making every individual important to him and to the (GAA) club” and praised him as being “a born leader, a man who dedicated so much of his life to helping others achieve their full potential… Dave’s sense of community building has left an everlasting impression on UCD”.
It was this enthusiasm that made an impression on anyone who was part of the GAA club during Billings’ time, from the junior football sides up to the stars of the senior team. After the Sigerson victory last year, Westmeath’s John Heslin paid tribute to Billings, saying that he treated Heslin “like nearly another son” upon his arrival into the college.
And it wasn’t just within the club that Billings’ passion for UCD GAA was felt. As far back as 1997, former Irish Times sportswriter Tom Humphries wrote the following of the St Vincent’s clubman:
“Davey Billings calls. He says the Ashbourne Cup is on out in UCD soon, so be sure to give it an old mention. This is the Billings Method. Enthusiasm. It is better for you to be disappointed in Billings than it is for Billings to be disappointed in you. You make a mental note. Circle in red. Camogie. Ashbourne Cup. UCD. Must do.”
Billings, a St Vincent’s clubman, played alongside Mullins as part of Kevin Heffernan’s All-Ireland winning Dublin squad in the 1970s, and also served later on as a selector for the senior side under Tommy Lyons and Paul Caffrey as well as managing the Dublin under-21s.
In his book Dub Sub Confidential, former Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard gives insight into how important these roles with his county were to Billings. Describing an incident where the Dublin under-21 side (with Billings in charge) were kicked out of the Leinster championship following a mass brawl in a game against Offaly, Leonard writes that as Billings addressed the players a week later, “tears welled in his eyes and his voice broke”.
With that enthusiasm and that passion for Gaelic games, it’s little wonder that when Dave Billings sadly departed, he left UCD GAA in such a strong and competitive state.