Rock on (and on): Joe’s 81 years working at Croke Park
For 81 years Joe Rock has seen the comings and goings in Croke Park. He shares his memories of a sporting life
Joe Rock, who has worked in Croke Park for 81 years. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Joe Rock (on left) and his younger brother Christy with their hurleys on Love Lane, Ballybough, in Dublin in 1936
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.”