‘Bliss was it that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven’
These words — taken from the poetry of William Wordsworth — formed the centrepiece of an article written by Dave Billings in 2011.
Dave regularly repeated these words through the two decades he spent as the driving force of UCD GAA club and they came easily to mind last Monday afternoon, when the players of DCU and UCD competed in the Freshers’ All-Ireland football final at Croke Park.
The match was played for the new Corn Daithí Billings. It is difficult to think of a more fitting competition for which to play for a cup named in honour the man who died so suddenly 10 months ago.
That Croke Park was opened for the game is a telling tribute to the standing in which Dave Billings remains held. No higher education match had been played in Croke Park since UCC beat Queen’s University Belfast in the Fitzgibbon Cup hurling final in March 1986.
And the last Higher Education football match played there had taken place a year previously, when UCD also beat Queen’s to win the Sigerson Cup.
It was fitting, too, that so many students turned up to the game. They saw DCU deservedly win by a point, despite UCD’s heroic late comeback.
The new cup was presented afterwards by Dave’s widow, Annette Billings, and all around were people who knew Dave from work and play and from life in general.
This, too, was a further reminder of two of the most striking things about his life: the first is that he appeared to know or have met just about everybody; and the second is that the memory of the man and his bicycle turning the corner and arriving at another match remains burned in the mind.
When it comes down to it, Dave Billings was a living example of all that is best in life.
This was manifest is many ways — all of which were rooted in his kindness, his decency and his intelligence, allied to a ferocious independence.
He was no plaster saint — he was more than capable of being a right rogue. And he knew it. But his personality was utterly unique and it was this that made him loved by so many. It is a simple truth that the campus at UCD has not been the same since last April — not for the people who shared an office with him such as Suzanne Bailey, not for his friends there, not for GAA players and not for all of those who had left UCD but with whom he stayed in touch and for whom he remained a link to a time in their lives for which a huge fondness endured.
Brian Mullins, director of sport in UCD, wrote a poignant tribute in the hours after Dave died: “I met Dave first over 50 years ago, he lit a fire in me then and it has burned ever since. Dave lit that fire in everyone he ever met. He was a born leader, a man who dedicated so much of his life to helping others achieve their full potential. The belief he showed in so many people has been vital to so many lives. Dave was our Moses and our Methuselah. He transformed the lives of generations of young people and that is his greatest legacy on the UCD campus.”
The crucial point here is that Dave used his extraordinary personality for a greater good. And the good he created was tangible — something that was there for everyone to see in the form of a thriving GAA club, which had room for all.
The club had its inter-county stars, but the club player from a junior club was equally welcome. And Dave had a way of luring you into his web and informing you that you had volunteered for a job that you did not even know existed.
He understood and championed the importance of sport in helping students firstly to settle into a new institution and then to develop. He wanted to win and he did everything he could to win, but he recognised that sport was about more than the result of any match.
More than anything else, what he created with students in UCD was a GAA club that was a space where they could belong. In doing this, he shaped the lives of thousands.
The transition from school to university is not a straightforward one and the capacity to fall through the cracks is real and constant. When an institution is as big as UCD, the great challenge is to give it a human face, to create an atmosphere where people can feel that they fit in. Dave Billings understood this.
He showed just how much he understood it mostly through his ability to make each student feel that they were important in themselves and that their individual progress mattered to him, and mattered a lot. Basically, the GAA club was not an abstract idea, it was the people in it.
The article which Dave centred on the Wordsworth quote was published in a history book published to mark the playing of the centenary of the Sigerson Cup competition in 2011. What he wrote encapsulated his views on the meaning of sport in a university (and can be extended across modern sporting life):
“The Sigerson Cup is more about memories than medals. Long after student days are over, the mention of the Sigerson Cup recaptures the days of our youth, of teammates who you would die for on the field and they for you. In these memories, we stay eternally young. Time moves on, of course, but in the mind it is not the grey haired middle-aged man that you see in front of you; rather it is the dashing, young athletic man in his prime, on the field of play.’
The GAA club in UCD remains a living testimony to these words.
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