The Rock family from Dublin were awarded the Dermot Earley Family Award in the 2022 GAA Presidents Awards. The award honours the superb and long standing impact the Rock family have had on GAA life in the capital. Joe Rock was the guy who looked after the dressing rooms at Croke Park until shortly before his death at the age of ninety in December 2016. I had the great pleasure of interviewing him for the Irish Times Magazine (17 August 2013) where we pondered his remarkable 81 year tenure at the GAA stadium.
With his eyes rolling up the walls of the triple tier Cusack Stand, Joe Rock shakes his head. “My God, this is a changed place since we started. Who’d have thought it would ever look like this?” It’s not as if he hasn’t seen the “new” Croke Park stadium before. He comes here nearly every Sunday, and has done for 81 years.
It’s just that, for the past hour or two, he’s been deep in anecdotal reverie about what he saw and did during those eight long decades.
Joe Rock grew up on Love Lane in Ballybough, in a cottage right under the shadow of the Cusack Stand, which opened in 1927, just months after his birth.
Will Rock, his father, reared pigs on the lane. His ponies travelled the northside, gathering up scraps into carts like the ones you see in the accompanying photo of Joe and his younger brother Christy from 1936.
When he wasn’t looking after pigs, Will was a ground steward at Croke Park. He was there on Bloody Sunday, 1920, an event he never talked about. By the 1930s, he was “custodian of the balls”, entrusted with the care of the footballs and sliotars destined for use in the annual All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling finals. On any other day of the year, Will wore a flat cap. On All-Ireland days, he donned his bowler.
“He’d collect the balls from head office and bring them home on a Friday night,” his son recalls. “He’d be like a security guard then until Sunday. We wouldn’t be allowed near them. When the time came, he’d ask one of us to help bring them in. There’d be four balls for the football, leather ones. I remember carrying them into the ground, everyone queuing up at the stiles, ‘Jaysus, there’s the balls for today’s match!’ they’d say and I’d be as proud as Larry as I walked on by.”
Rain was one thing. Eddie Keher was another. “When Kilkenny’d be playing, my Dad would see Eddie coming up to take a free and he’d groan. ‘Get another one out’, he’d say to me. And Eddie would hit the ball way over the Railway Wall and into the railway. Normally my Dad would have 12 balls but you’d want a bag-full if Eddie was playing.”
Joe made his Croke Park debut at the age of six. “In those days the teams never came off the pitch at half time,” he explains. “They’d be given a tray of sliced oranges and my job was to pick all the skins up off the ground after.”
By his early teens, Joe was in charge of the dressing rooms, which he still looks after, every Sunday, seven decades later.
“The Seniors and the Minors had the same dressing room,” he says. “There was no public toilet so people would come into the ones in the dressing room. They’d walk straight through the team who’d be getting dressed. It was all very relaxed. The stands were all wooden seats, no numbers or anything. There’d be thousands of people all over the place but there was never any trouble at all.”
Joe’s mother, Mary Ford, grew up at 16 Gardiner Street and worked for Jacob’s Biscuits factory. She and a friend were walking down O’Connell Street when two men sent some wolf-whistles their way. They got talking and the men invited them to a dance. One of the men was Will Rock, with whom Mary had six sons and a daughter.
“And that’s the very same way that we met,” says Joe’s wife Betty. “I was coming up O’Connell Street with a friend and he started whistling after us. I said to my friend ‘keep walking, keep walking’. She said ‘no, that’s a relation of mine’. She was actually his niece.”
Betty McBride grew up in the Gaeltacht region of Ballydavid on the Dingle Peninsula. Her mother spoke no English and Joe had limited Irish. Shortly after they first met, Mrs McBride addressed Betty in Irish. “She says you’re a lovely looking chap,” lied Betty. Joe arched his eyes and Betty revised her translation. “She wants to know why I didn’t marry a nice fellow from Dingle instead of a Dublin jackeen like yourself.”
It didn’t take long for Joe to woo his mother-in-law and they became close. As she lay dying in a hospital ward many decades later, she asked Joe, a fine tenor, to sing her The Rose of Tralee.
The Rocks are likely to remain strong in Croke Park lore for some time to come. Joe’s great-nephew Dean Rock is on the Dublin Senior team, and eight-year-old GAA-crazy grandson Aaron Rock is already the toast of another generation.
For Joe, life is all about the stories. Shadow-boxing with Al “Blue” Lewis when the Detroit heavyweight took over the dressing room for his clash with Muhammad Ali. The time his brother John, in charge of a scoreboard, ran out of numbers and had to temporarily convert some points into goals. “Rock Blunders at Croke Park!”, chuckles Joe. “It was all over the papers next day.”
Paddy Grace, the long-serving Kilkenny secretary, hiding in the dressing room for the last 10 minutes of a match because he couldn’t bear to watch.
His one-legged Ballybough neighbour who’d hoist a ladder up to the Railway Wall on All-Ireland day and charge a fee to climb it.
“Ah, there’s no sneaky ladders up the walls now,” smiles Joe. ‘Those days are gone but you have to go with the times, don’t you?