Lifelong GAA volunteer and Westmeath man Joe Roarke, who was buried this week, spoke to the Irish World’s Larry Cooney not long before we lost him
The death was announced on Tuesday 17 January of legendary Warwickshire GAA official Joe Roarke. Aged 79, Westmeath native Joe lost a brave long battle with bad health in the company of his wife Bea and only son Joseph.
Just a few months after the passing of Leitrim native Pat Forde last year Warwicskhire GAA has now lost another loyal servant who had dedicated almost sixty years of his life to the promotion Gaelic games from a young footballer for his native Caulry GFC in Mount Temple, Westmeath before emigrating to Birmingham in 1958 where he became one of Warwickshire GAA’s best known officials and ambassadors.
And it was not hard to see why Joe became such a pivotal and personable figure among the greater GAA fraternity and especially at Pairc na hEireann and previously Glebe Farm not to mention the two decades he spent as Secretary of the GAA Provincial Council of Britain.
It was therefore no real surprise in 2009 when all his dedication and contribution to the GAA was finally acknowledged when Joe Roarke was presented with a GAA President’s Award. A year before Joe Roarke received that accolade he reflected on his fifty years involvement with Warwickshire GAA and so as a tribute to one of the game’s great administrators outside Ireland the full transcript of that interview is now being re-published underneath.
“I came to Birmingham in 1958 mainly because my sister had already settled here previously and I have lived here in Sheldon for quite a number of years now. Of course times have changed enormously but since then but it’s also great to see such wonderful progress in the GAA here in Birmingham and I have some great memories of my involvement during that period,” said the affable Westmeath man.
However Joe’s early introduction to the game was with his native club Caulry GFC where his nephew, also named Joe, is a club official. “My football playing career started with Caulry where I won a junior championship and league medal in 1957.
“I remember distinctly being presented with my medals on 1st February and going to Birmingham on the following day to join my sister and I have been there ever since,” said Joe.
On joining what was then the Tara GFC in Birmingham he played football for a few years before he began a long distinguished career in GAA administration by becoming the club secretary. Joe’s organisational ability was acknowledged in 1964 by the Warwickshire GAA County Board when he was elected the County PRO. From that position he was elected assistant secretary in 1967 before finally becoming the County Secretary in 1971- a position which he held for much of the seventies.
Joe Roarke was also one of the first pioneers of GAA underage development in Birmingham when he served as secretary of the Warwickshire GAA Minor Board for three years. His reign as County Secretary in partnership with a number of different chairmen also coincided with a period of tremendous progress for Gaelic games in the Midlands of Britain.
In 1977 Joe was elevated to provincial level administration when he was elected Secretary of the Provincial Council of Britain and served there for twenty-one years. And if that wasn’t enough commitment to the promotion of Gaelic games Joe also found time to become quite an accomplished referee which took him not only all over the Midlands but also to London, Manchester and Leeds.
“I made many trips to New Eltham and Ruislip where my friend – the late Martin Diggins or Tom Coffey used to pick me up from the railway station but I always enjoyed that part of the game,” said Joe.
Although London might claim to be the kingpins of Exiles GAA Joe also pointed out that Warwickshire hurlers also enjoyed some tremendous success in the late sixties and early seventies.
“Undoubtedly the playing highlights of Warwickshire GAA belong to the county’s junior hurlers who claimed All-Ireland titles in 1968, 1969 and 1973.
“I was very much involved in the management of those teams which included attending training sessions during that ‘Golden Era’ of hurling in the Midands.
“There were some fine players on those teams and after losing to Kildare in 1966 they came back to beat Kerry twice at home in 1968 and in Tralee on the following year. Their last title was won in Ardee where they defeated the hosts Louth in 1973,” said Joe.
Lory Meagher Cup triumph
And that was Warwickshire’s last national championship title until their Lory Meagher Cup triumph in Croke Park in June 2013. Off the field the development and opening of the current headquarters of Warwickshire GAA in Pairc na hEireann, near Birmingham Airport in 1989 was easily the most significant event in the promotion of GAA in the Midlands of Britain.
“The opening of Pairc na hEireann in October 1989 was the culmination of a lot of work by many people over the years. Great credit must go to the men who had the vision to buy the land many years previously in 1964 for just over £3,000 before planning permission was finally agreed,” said Joe.
Not alone are the two pitches ideally located for all Midlands GAA fixtures but also for many matches involving teams from all over the country in the provincial club championship. Another important date in the early days in the Pairc na hEireann calendar was the annual Universities tournament each February when Britain’s Trench Cup representatives are decided.
The Universities tournament is one the most important developments in GAA in Britain and along with the introduction of Gaelic games into primary and secondary schools in the noughties has been responsible for changing the whole landscape of GAA in Britain.
“There is no doubt that the development of GAA among the Third Level Education establishments was a welcome boost for Gaelic games in Britain especially at a time when the number of players coming over to work had been dwindling” said Joe.
However the unimaginable success of the Brian Roberts led initiative of taking Gaelic games into primary and secondary schools in the Midlands of Britain was perhaps the greatest achievement in the early part of the millennium.
“It has been absolutely tremendous to get so many young people of all nationalities playing our games but the real challenge will come in trying to keep these latest recruits in the sport at adult level,” said Joe.
But despite being not as mobile as he used to be in his active early years of Warwickshire GAA involvement Joe never lost his love of the game and his visits to Pairc na hEireann. His Sligo-born wife Bea has been his lifelong support since they both met while working on the buses for Birmingham City Transport in the late 50s. They also have a house in Coolaney near Ballymote and which is where Joe will be laid to rest on Saturday 4th February.
Days in Pairc na hEireann without the presence of the friendly Joe Roarke will never be the same again because the home of Warwickshire GAA was like a second home for him and which is why he kept going there for as long as he was physically able to do so.
“I still manage to get out to Pairc na hEireann as often as I can and even on days when there is no games just to keep an eye on the place and visit the marble monument erected to past officers who have served on the Warwickshire GAA County Board.”
The name of Joe Roarke – one of Warwickshire GAA’s most loyal servants, will soon become another name on that memorial.
Finally the last word on Joe Roarke is perhaps best left to former GAA Provincial Council of Britain President – the late Tommy Walsh in a quote from his history of the GAA Provincial Council of Britain
“Of all the remarkable men who have kept the GAA flag flying in Britain Joe Roarke is surely one of the greatest.”
Wednesday 1st February – Reposing at Jonathan Walker Funeral Parlour, from 4pm to 6pm, 288 Church Road, Sheldon, Birmingham, B26 3YH.
Removal to St Augustine RC Church for 7pm Mass,1 Herbert Road, Solihull B91 3QE.
Joe’s remains will be flown to Knock on Friday 3 February –Reposing at Clarkes Funeral Home, Coolaney from 4pm to 6 pm, Main Street, Coolaney, Co. Sligo 56V XO4.
Removal to St Joseph’s Church, Rockfield, Coolaney for 7pm reception.
Saturday 4th February – Funeral Mass at 12 noon followed by burial in Rockfield Cemetery, St Joseph’s Church, Rockfield, Coolaney, Co. Sligo.
Deepest sympathy is extended to Joe’s widow Bea and his son Joseph. Ar Dheis De go raibh a anam.