There’s a picture which perfectly captures why Brendan Ó Sé started it all.
A young child, hurley in one hand, sliotar clutched tight in the other, peers over the barrier at his heroes. He’s dressed head-to-toe in Galway gear and wearing number 11. Joe Canning’s number.
His dad, lowering himself to one knee, tells him more. Passing on the stories and insights that age brings.
“I fell asleep as a child in the hurling fields of the Mardyke, Thurles, and Croke Park. My father would stand at the foot of my bed and bring to life the high drama of hurling. He was my very own Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and my bedroom became my very own stadium,” said Ó Sé at the outset of his Heart of Hurling project.
It’s a photographic journey to discover what hurling means to us, with a particular emphasis on the fan experience. He posts the photos online alongside accounts of his encounters.
That father and son by the pitch, Ó Sé says, are dreaming, just as he dreamt as a child.
“It’s a tender, intimate moment.
“The father is probably looking at the son dreaming that one day he’ll be out there and the father will be in the stands looking out at him. And the little boy, as all little boys do in that situation, is looking at his heroes and thinking: ‘Wow! That could be me some day’.”
Ó Sé’s own relationship with his father inspired the project.
“It’s a dedication to my father, because of the love of the games he gave me. He’d electrify me with those stories of Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard, and John Doyle, so reconnecting with that is part of it too.
“My earliest memory is going down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh when it was opened in 1976 and I remember my father made a little wooden seat for me to sit on between his legs. I remember him holding me tightly between his legs when the crowd overspilled onto the pitch and terrified me at the Munster Football final that year.
“I can remember being pushed over the turnstiles too so when I go to these matches, seeing the small kids going with their parents and their hurleys and their sliotars really stands out for me.”
Kids and their hurleys. Fans and their eclectic colours. Families and friends going together despite divided loyalties. All of them mixing with players after victory or defeat feature throughout Ó Sé’s snaps.
An English language teacher at UCC and award-winning photographer, his favourite photo is Seamus Harnedy being embraced by his mother amid the Munster final pitch invasion.
But two stories from Cork and Clare’s first meeting down the Páirc get right to the heart of matters.
Outside he met Denis Joseph McClean. A Cork follower for more than half a century, he now lives in Birmingham. Still, he flies home for every Cork match, maintaining a run that stretches back to Gerald McCarthy lifting Liam.
“I never miss them. Not once since 1966.” he told Ó Sé. “Myself and my two brothers go to all the games together.”
In the stands he met two Clare brothers sitting together, the Brassils. Life had moved them apart, Donal to Blackrock in Cork and Paddy to Carlingford in Louth.
“They only get to see each other when they get together for Clare matches. They travel down and they make a weekend of it.”
There’s been poignant moments captured along the way too.
Ó Sé photographed the Smith family from Tipperary, who always bring a flag with the image of their 26-year-old son Eric, who died by suicide.
“They want to keep his memory alive by bringing him to the games because they used go as a family.”
Another photo of Tipp fans captures three generations of the Darcy family at Semple Stadium.
A beaming baby Emily, dressed in yellow for Tipp, was quick to be introduced to the family tradition by her mother, Helena, and grandmother, Meta. She may not remember Tipp’s stirring comeback that day, but no doubt she’ll be told all about it in the future.
There’s humour in the photos too, such as when Ó Sé spied Kevin McMahon in full Cork gear, including a red camogie skirt.
“I thought he was a Cork fan and I ran after him for a photo. When I caught up with him I discovered he’s from Limerick and his buddies had brought him down to Cork for a stag. As part of the stag they got him to dress up in the Cork camogie gear and frilly red knickers.”
The aim for the project, which is supported by Bord Gáis Energy, is to gather a series of photos which tell the story of the Championship in its full array of colour and energy.
“I want to tell the excitement, the exhilaration and the disappointment that comes with following your county.
“It’s a passion project for me. I’m hurling mad and photography mad, so to be able to put the two together has been a fantastic experience.”
He’ll have an exhibition this autumn and hopes to publish a book of the images too. So three months into the project and only three more games to go, what has he learned? What is at the heart of hurling?
“The Heart of Hurling comes down to how we express our identity. Why are people so passionate and so proud of their counties? It’s something that’s bigger than the individual and something we can collectively be proud of. The GAA and particularly hurling are something to cherish.
“Everybody I’ve met, even from Offaly, which was the first game I went to, although they knew they were going to lose to Galway, they went to the game to support their county with a sense of pride in their tradition, in hurling, in who they are.
“There’s 130 years of tradition where we collectively come together and it doesn’t matter if we’re from opposing teams or great rivals like Cork and Tipp, there’s fantastic mutual respect among the fans and a pride in how we express Irish identity through the game of hurling.”
This weekend in Croke Park he has two aspirations: A Cork win and some good photos. Strictly in that order.
“For me, Cork hurling would be more important than the whole project. If they won the All-Ireland, it’d be an absolute dream.”
The same as he dreamed in the stadium of his childhood.