GAA Up and down the length of Ireland

GAA documentary paul oconnell
Limerick man Paul Carroll spent seven years, and 31,000 miles documenting local GAA

As photographer Paul Carroll sits down and prepares to discuss his new book, Gaelic Fields, he notes that it is nice to finally take a moment to relax and reflect, writes Adam Shaw. He’s earned that moment, in all fairness, having recently completed a seven-year, 31,000 mile journey around all 32 counties in Ireland while balancing two other jobs.

The subject of his mammoth project is something quintessentially Irish; as much a part of the country’s DNA as a friendly jar and the craic – GAA.

But while it is easy to marvel at the skill and athleticism of the likes of T.J. Reid and Donnchadh Walsh, it was the humble beginnings of the games that inspired Paul.

GAA documentary paul oconnell

“I wanted to look at the grassroots level because I think it’s all about community,” he said. “It binds communities together like no other institution in Ireland – it really is incredible. “It just gives people a high when they’re involved and it can help people overcome all kinds of issues. “There is life going on in these communities and this is driven on by people playing sport.”

If Paul was impressed with the impact sport at all levels can have on people, it was the work of a photographer from the Netherlands, Hans van der Meer, and a gap in his lifestyle which also influenced him. Van der Meer undertook a similar project where he snapped images of soccer players alongside unmistakably Dutch landscapes. And as Paul, by his own admission, was “whiling away his late 20s and living for the weekend”, he decided to buy a car, hit the road and give Van der Meer’s concept an Irish twist.

Lengthy journey

Like on any lengthy journey, the 36-year-old managed to pack a lot in. But he was still amazed by what he saw as well as being frequently surprised at some of the lengths people would go to in order to play the games they love.

“I took pictures in some of the craziest places,” he said. “Inishturk Island, for example, when I went there, it had 34 people living in it – just about enough for two teams.

“And then there was Bailieborough in County Cavan which has a huge, dominant factory right there overlooking the field. One place I went to had houses directly behind the pitch and the teams were playing hurling at the time so I’m pretty sure those windows have been through a lot.”

GAA documentary paul oconnell

Paul, who hails from Murroe, Co. Limerick, but is now based in Cork, has never been one for landscapes, but he acknowledged that “to enjoy the country the way I did was unbelievable”. His true interest lies with people, and, as well as providing him with, in his eyes, more compelling shots, the people he met provided him with some of his fondest memories.

“On some of the islands there were a lot of guys who were deeply affected by the recession and the resulting emigrations,” he explained. “Teams were being torn apart and they were losing a lot of their young players. You can see how it’s coincided with a resurgence of GAA abroad.”

This story is certainly poignant, but his most exciting anecdote came on a balmy evening in West Cork. The light wasn’t ideal, and the background wasn’t what Paul expected it to be, but, before he headed home, he had to pay a quick visit to the toilet.

GAA documentary paul oconnell

“This lad told me I had to go through the changing rooms and it brought back all those smells I’d been used to and then, when I came out, they told me I had to play,” he said. “I was incredulous; I hadn’t played in 20 years. But I thought ‘why not?’

“They gave me some boots and some shorts and all that, I slotted in at the half-forward line and even scored a point – so there you go.” Paul, who played until he was sixteen and captained his Gaelic football team back in Murroe, shows that, no matter how old you get, you never lose it.

Incessant desire

Another story involved a incessant desire from diehard fans to find out why he was in Longford on a Thursday afternoon taking pictures of a Junior B hurling match. Then there was the time his car turned over on a country road on the way to a game, but that “requires a whole article in itself ”.

These scares and scrapes, trials and tribulations provide the backdrop to Paul’s lengthy campaign, and the obvious question is to ask whether it was all worth it. The short answer is: not always. But there’s no denying that, after everything, when he reflects on his journey, his memories are mainly happy ones.

GAA documentary paul oconnell

“I remember one night where I was driving back from a game in Ireland and I just thought to myself ‘I really do love doing this’,” he said. “In terms of the seven year thing, I was rationalising it by comparing it to a job or marriage – people do these things for that long and don’t even think about it. And it was like a relationship. I know that sounds really cheesy but, at the start I was so excited and I fell in love with it and then about halfway round I was like ‘what the f*** am I doing?’

“It got to a point where I thought it was invading my whole life and it was taking over everything – personal relationships, friendships and so on. “And then I calmed down and I really got back into it.”

Feeling fulfilled is one thing, but holding the finished product in your hands and seeing it in the hands of many others is another, and that is what Paul now has his sights set on. He has set up a Kickstarter page in the hope of gaining some support to have 1,000 copies of the 65-photo strong book printed.

At this time he was a fifth of the way towards his goal of €10,000, with the project set to cease on 2 September. As well as being an attractive, fascinating collection of pictures, Paul believes his travels allowed him to see Ireland, and its people, in a new light.

And in creating this book, which will cover all aspects of GAA, camogie and ladies’ football included, he hopes to provide a snapshot of what he experienced to thousands of others.

• For more information

London GAA: A proper, county class pitch at last


Sign in or create your account to join the discussion

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways