The late Billy Finn.
News travels fast in a small town. And it spread like wildfire on the evening of June 2nd when word got around that Billy Finn had died suddenly in his home. The strains of guitar music from the nearby Rory Gallagher Festival could be heard up in Fr. Tierney Park where Billy’s beloved Aodh Ruadh were playing Ardara. As word came through people gathered in small groups trying to digest the awful news and to lessen the shock by talking about and sharing their memories of Billy. The game and the festival suddenly ceased to matter.
A classmate of Bob Geldof
Billy Finn was born in Callan, Co. Kilkenny into a very musical family. His father was a bank manager and the family moved for a number of years to Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo and eventually to Roscommon Town. Billy was educated in the local schools in these towns but studied for and sat his Leaving Cert. in Blackrock College, where he numbered Bob Geldof among his classmates. After graduating from UCG and doing the H. Dip. in Education in Maynooth University he arrived in Ballyshannon Vocational School in the early 1970s to begin his teaching career. Having taught there until Coláiste Cholmcille opened in 2000, he retired in 2008.
To say he taught would be selling Billy short. He inspired. He did not so much teach history as bring it to life by performing it. Anyone lucky enough to have been in one of his classes will remember him standing on tables doing a wonderful impression of Winston Churchill’s ‘’Fight them on the beaches’’ speech or Hitler exhorting the faithful at a Munich rally. You were transported there. He also did wonderfully cheeky impressions of Eamon De Valera and W.B. Yeats. Billy Finn brought history to life for generations of Ballyshannon students. But he did so much more than that both in the Vocational School and in Coláiste Cholmcille.
His students’ history projects won numerous prizes. He ran wildlife projects and organised concerts. If it needed doing Billy did it. Those of us who were his teaching colleagues saw the care he showed to his students all through his career and perhaps most of all when he became an Assistant Principal in Coláiste Cholmcille.
His Kilkenny roots showed in his love of hurling. Though he constantly expressed a wish to see the end of Kilkenny’s dominance of the sport we all knew he was a Stripey Man to the core. Great Noreside hurlers dominate the board of honour that hangs in his hall at home. This is no coincidence. Billy laboured long and hard to promote hurling in Ballyshannon. His car always seemed to be full of helmets, sticks, bibs and muddied jerseys waiting to be washed, as he made his way from training session to match to committee meeting. The fact that Aodh Ruadh is a proud dual football and hurling club is in no small degree due to the love that Billy Finn had for our great game.
Gifted flute player
Music also played an integral part in Billy’s life. He loved playing music and was a gifted flute player. His playing lifted many a session in Ballyshannon, Cliffoney, Kinlough and much further afield. He also played whistle, uilleann pipes and guitar. When he suffered a stroke, one week after he retired in 2008, he showed tremendous courage in teaching himself to play the accordion when he was no longer able to play the flute to a level that satisfied himself. It was sad indeed to see his pipes and other instruments in his den at home during the wake. I can still see the expressions of amazement on some students’ faces as they watched and listened to Billy showing them the right way to play Jimi Hendrix’ All Along the Watchtower on electric guitar one lunchtime in the music room of the Coláiste. Priceless! ‘’He’s cool’’ one of them said. So he was.
Most people in Ballyshannon will have seen Billy Finn and his video camera at all sorts of events in the area. Over the last 30 years he recorded matches, music sessions, parades, All Ireland Home Comings, concerts, drama, musicals and anything else that moved. He has collected a wonderful archive of interviews with some old people of the area in which they recalled the stories of their lives. It has all been transferred onto DVD by Billy and will prove to be a treasure trove for social historians in the future.
I will always associate Billy Finn with fun. The fun we had working on Historic Ballyshannon projects such as the historic plaques which can be seen all over the town, the Walking Guides, the pageant in Fr. Tierney Park, ‘The Winding Banks of Erne’ drama in the Abbey Centre, ‘You Can’t Do That’ pub theatre. Magical times for all involved. Then there was the book club, the movies, the gigs, the College Street Quartet quiz team and so much more. Precious memories, indeed by which to remember a dear friend.
But more than all of the above Billy Finn was a family man. He had great love for and pride in his beloved wife and daughter, Bernie and Aisling, and his brother and sisters. The dedication he had to his late brother Mickey’s musical legacy was testament to what family meant to Billy. This love of family was never more apparent than when Billy walked Aisling up the aisle on the day she married Kevin Sheridan just a few short months ago. It was obviously one of the proudest moments of his life and this shines through in the beautiful photograph of Billy taken on that day and about which so many people commented at his wake.
At his wake!! So easy to say but so difficult to believe. Billy Finn was my friend and I can’t believe that he is gone. But I and many others are privileged to be able to call him friend. We will miss him terribly but will have many happy memories to help us remember this warm wonderful man. And his timing was perfect as usual. He got away from us before we could slag him about Kilkenny losing at last.
Sleep well old friend.