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

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.

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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"