Dave Billings: exceptional Gael who gave so much to the sport

GAA was lucky to have a man like St Vincents clubman, who died suddenly last week

Dublin and Tipperary’s under-21 footballers stand together before their All-Ireland semi-final clash as they observe a minute’s silence for the late Dave Billings. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Dublin and Tipperary’s under-21 footballers stand together before their All-Ireland semi-final clash as they observe a minute’s silence for the late Dave Billings. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Commemorating him with a minute’s silence felt like a slightly paradoxical way to mark the passing of the sometimes voluble Dave Billings. On another level, the tribute at matches over the weekend captured the sense of speechless shock at the sudden, premature death of someone who was, without exaggeration, one of the GAA’s most influential personalities.

At his funeral in St Gabriel’s church, Dollymount in Dublin three flags were laid on the coffin: those of Dublin, UCD and St Vincents.

A tableau of his influence could be seen in the affecting picture taken before the Dublin-Tipperary under-21 semi-final at the weekend when nine players from both counties linked arms before the throw-in. They were all UCD players, marking the passing of someone who had helped to shape them.

It has always been a strong argument in favour of college teams when they find their place within the GAA subjected to frequently unfair criticism that a third-level institution is in its way every bit as vital a community as a parish.

Dave Billings typified that sense of community. The tributes tumbling through social media last week underlined that aspect of his work in Belfield. He knew and appreciated everyone. Several tweets made reference to how he drew no distinction between those hacking away down the food chain and eminent Sigerson or Fitzgibbon players.

After the UCD hurlers had been defeated by eventual winners UL in a Fitzgibbon Cup quarter-final in Limerick earlier this year, he was tearing away to the other side of the country to catch up with a match involving one of the college’s women’s football teams.

In order to explain how he would arrive at a location before someone who had flown there by helicopter, it was plausibly said in his club, St Vincents, that there were actually two Dave Billings’s.

Other testimonials included acknowledgement of the assistance he’d provided for academic assignments, from general help to specific guidance on post-graduate theses.

Dave Billings arrived in Belfield 17 years ago. He was described as UCD’s Gaelic games executive – as underwhelming and useful a description as saying that Barack Obama works for the US government.

He was older than you’d expect of such an appointment but that maturity cloaked an exceptional career up to that point. Heading straight from school into Citibank, Dave worked around the departments and caught the eye of his employers, who dispatched him to UCD to study for a B Comm, from which he graduated with a first-class degree.

First brush

When Tim Brosnan left Citibank to found financial trading firm Gandon Securities a number of his colleagues, including Billings, went with him. Gandon was the first Irish company to get a licence for the new International Financial Services Centre. In an interview with this paper in 1990, he was anxious to dismiss the stereotyping of his business as yuppie vultures at odds with their inner-city neighbours.

“We’re ordinary people like any other Irish people just doing a job,” he said, adding that he had been brought up on the North Strand and was a local himself.

Some time after Woodchester acquired the business in the mid-1990s Billings decided to cash out and effectively dedicate the rest of his life to the GAA.

He brought three great assets for the task ahead: he had sufficient money to retire into his new project; and he had an excellent mind, honed on Gandon’s foreign exchange desk, as well as the substance of a proven business man that enabled him to deal with everyone from the most senior academics to county boards and managers.

Surgical treatment

He could become almost radioactive during matches but the madness lifted within about 10 minutes. In Colm O’Rourke’s brilliant description, “while he had an uncanny ability to fight with nearly everyone during a game he would fall out with no one”.

After he had been suspended for an on-pitch eruption during the notorious Dublin-Offaly under-21 championship match in 1997 at Parnell Park, Dave Billings took his case as far as Central Council. There, delegates were genuinely sad that they had to confirm his ban but felt that the rules had to be upheld.

I reported the sense of sorrow at the meeting only to get my first (of many) phone calls. It started rather combatively until I was able to convince him that I hadn’t been turning his difficulties into satire for my own entertainment.

He was an acute observer of Gaelic games but above all a tireless enthusiast. Instead of retiring into a life of leisure with the proceeds of his successful career, he chose to give something back and thousands around the country benefited.

The biggest third-level institution in the country is a thriving centre of Gaelic games. The GAA was very lucky to have him. smoran@irishtimes.com

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