Why I secretly photographed GAA pitches for seven years
Paul Carroll travelled 31,000 miles to capture the seasonal changes of GAA for a book
Portarlington, Co Laois: The letters on the seats in the stand read ‘PORT’, local slang for the town. The industrial building overlooking the pitch is an Odlum’s factory. “The two guys look like they’ve become almost symbiotic being together. It was taken in February and you’ve got that grey start to a league campaign feeling,” he says.
Inisturk, Co Mayo: Having spotted this pitch on an online forum, Carroll was determined to capture it – even a car crash in Leenane, Connemara en route didn’t stop him. He discovered his vantage point by accident, having wandered the wrong way around the island.
Castlewellan, Co Down: Before this ladies game between Castlewellan and Bryansford, Carroll was asked what he was doing. “I had to explain myself, which didn’t happen too often, but everyone was nice about it then,” he says. “I saw the warm-up and just thought it looked interesting and captured the scene nicely.”
Monksland, Co Louth: The final edit is not complete but it looks likely there will be only four photos of ladies football and camogie games in the book. This one was taken in Carlingford as hosts Cooley Kickhams take on city slickers Stephenites, the Dublin champions, in a Leinster club tie.
Grange, Co Sligo: The mountain overlooking the home of the Naomh Molaise club here is Ben Bulben which, according to locals, is only clearly visible in the early months of the year. The photo was taken from the goalmouth itself in the dying seconds of the match after Carroll “chanced his arm” and stepped in.
Dripsey, Co Cork: A junior hurling final at the tail-end of 2015 in Dripsey, outside Cork City. The GAA world is a small one: Carroll’s colleague from work, whom he didn’t know was a GAA man, was an umpire; and the man’s brother, who features in the image, was refereeing.
Springfield Road, Belfast: Gort na Mona’s pitch is on the side of a hill, hemmed in by houses and a handful of rival clubs, overlooking Belfast, the shipyards, the tower blocks, the hustle and bustle down below. “It’s another example of people wanting to put their identity on an area by having a Gaelic club there.”
Achill Sound, Co Mayo: The road runs along what Carroll describes as “kind of an embankment area”. He caught this picture earlier this year after a nine-hour round-trip. “You can stand up on the bank and look down on the field and get the mountain and water and the game in, too.”
Inis Oirr, Co Galway: Carroll found himself ferry-hopping between islands. He had been to Inis Oírr and was told a game was taking place on neighbouring Inis Meáin. It wasn’t so he returned to the smaller island and got the shot. The boys with the pony and trap are locals who “could’ve been trying to pick up some tourist traffic”, he reckons.
It started with a cycle. Paul Carroll toured the island with a friend and, arriving home, brain buzzing from the raw splendour of it all, the thought struck him.
“I had never seen Ireland in that way before,” Carroll (36), author of an ambitious new book of photographic images of Ireland’s GAA pitches, says, “and it blew me away.”
“I was in my late 20s, whiling away my time, living for the weekend sort of thing, and I decided I wanted to take on something.”
So, inspired by a Dutch book which chronicled soccer games across mainland Europe, he bought a car, threw his camera on the seat and hit the road, giving himself 10 years to complete a project he called Gaelic Fields.
Carroll, a native of Murroe, Co Limerick but based in Cork, managed it in seven. His journey took him 31,000 miles, greater than the circumference of the globe.
The book took him to new places, showed him new things. In west Cork, a team were down a man; he was cajoled into togging out. Twenty years after he last kicked a O’Neill’s in anger, he scored a point.
“I had to leave at half-time. What was funny was that there another guy of the same name, Paul Carroll, playing with the team I played for. It’s just a small world.”
In Bailieborough, Co Cavan, he heard the whirr of pistons and the grunt of valves in the factory which leans over the pitch.
In Leenane, in deepest Connemara, near where the film The Field was filmed, he found himself in a field when his car toppled over. Still, he kept on, juggling his duties, routinely driving for six or seven hours at a time in the hope of getting that shot.
“Through the narrative and flow of the club season, I wanted to highlight the identity of the communities at the grassroots of the game,” he says.
Recognising that same community spirit which moved the islanders of Inisturk, his favourite pitch, to “carve their field out of rock on an island of 54 people, [to] put their stamp on the land”, was important.
Carroll is not a GAA diehard.
Although he played Gaelic football as a child, soccer is more his thing; his day job as a care worker in Cork city has taught him the power of sport and he organises an annual soccer league there for homeless people.
But, in Gaelic games, he saw Irish community life at its best and he was determined to record it.
“It’s a documentary work. The photos individually can be enjoyed but I wanted the work to flow. The whole idea of the book is that it moves from really dark, gloomy days in February at the start of the league, all the way through the season to the bright evenings, and on to the club championship in August.
“I’ve tried to mirror that within the pages of the book. It starts with the first throw-in of the season in Co Louth, dark photos, grim weather, before it starts brightening up into long, bright evenings.
“I hope it captures that seasonal transition. There is no point sanitising it. You’re trying to capture Ireland, so there’s no point taking photos in high light all the time, because that’s not what Ireland is about. We have bad weather, we have muddy pitches at the start and end of the year, and then we have some brighter days, too.”
Carroll kept the idea a secret, fearing it would get out (“a fleet of photographers could do what I did in a weekend”) and be ripped from his grasp. That would have broken his heart, he says.
“How do I feel now? I’m kind of relieved, to be honest. I was doing something for so long and I could only tell a select few people. It’s great to be able to open up about it.”
The book has, fittingly, been crowdfunded and that has brought its own unexpected benefits.
“It’s been nice because a lot of people who order it tell me the reasons why. Maybe it’s for a dad or because they’ve travelled around Ireland or maybe it’s because of how much Gaelic games means to them, how much they’re vested in it.” Just, as his labour of love shows, he now is himself.
To pre-order a copy of Gaelic Fields, log on to kickstarter.com and search “Gaelic Fields”