I had never planned to make a film about bare-knuckle boxing. I stumbled across this secretive world and was drawn into it. – Director Ian Palmer
An epic 12-year journey into in the world of an Irish Traveller community,KNUCKLE takes us inside their secretive and exhilarating bare-knuckle fighting lives. Chronicling a history of violent feuding between rival families, the film follows James Quinn McDonagh and his younger brother Michael, as they fight for their reputations and the honour of their family name.
Two men are driven to a quiet country lane close to Dundalk near the Irish border. Cars are used to block off access to the lane, less than ten other people are present.They watch silently, as the two men walk to a clear area, strip to the waist and prepare for a bare-knuckle fistfight.
The rules are no biting, head-butting or below the belt punches. There are no rounds or breaks and the fight goes on until one man gives up or is knocked out. James Quinn McDonagh and Paddy ‘The Lurcher” Joyce are there to represent their feuding Traveller clans. Although the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces are cousins, they are bitter enemies and have clashed for generations. The two families are at theheart of one of the longest and most violent bare-knuckle boxing feuds in Irelandand England.
KNUCKLE takes us into this secretive Traveller world – a world of long and bitter memories and a history of violent clashes between rival clans, which has sometimes resulted in death. The film seeks to find out the real motives behind these feuds. In this epic journey, shot over 12 years, the action moves from the quiet Irish country lane in 1997 and looks set to culminate a decade later in a major fight planned to take place near Luton, England in 2007.
The film follows the fighting life of James Quinn McDonagh, unbeaten against hisopponents, a fight organiser and hero to his family. Now at the end of his boxing career, James trains the younger men of his family and referees fights for other Traveller families. His younger brother Michael is in intense training for a rematch against ‘Big” Paul Joyce, a top fighter from the Joyce family. An unpredictable character and keen to prove himself; Michael hopes to mend his reputation after
being disqualified in a previous fight against Paul Joyce nine years before in 1999. KNUCKLE documents the brothers’ journey from youth to early middle age throughthe significant moments in their lives, marriage and the birth of their children, and shows how the bitterness of their clan’s feud continues to overshadow everything else.
Shot in an observational style, KNUCKLE gives a hard-edged portrait of Traveller male culture and explores the bonds of loyalty, the need for revenge and the pressures to fight for the honour of your family name. Vivid, violent and funny,KNUCKLE gains unique access into the fighting culture of a hidden, contemporary community.
KNUCKLE is a rare chance to step inside one of the world’s most vibrant and elusive communities. Travellers are normally secretive about certain parts of their lifestyle. Never before has such a portrayal of their fighting traditions been committed to film.
“In 1997 I knew very little about Travellers and I knew nothing about their feuding and tradition of organised fist fighting. I had been introduced to a Traveller family called the McDonaghs who lived in the small town of Navan about twenty miles north of Dublin. As I got to know the McDonaghs I started to research a film about their family history and traditions.
One of their daughters was due to be married and they asked me if I would video the wedding. I filmed it, and gave the bride and groom the footage. The groom was called Michael Quinn McDonagh and I met his older brothers, James and Paddy, at the reception.
A few weeks later I got a call from one of the brothers’ I had met at the wedding, Paddy Quinn McDonagh. His brother James had a fight coming up and they invited me to video it. I shot the fight and it was like a door into a hidden world had opened up before me and I stepped through into the world of bare-knuckle fighting. That first fight was an exhilarating experience and I knew immediately that I wanted to learn more about this world of clan feuding. It turned out to be the beginning of a journey that was to last for the next 12 years.
I decided that I would try to make a film from within the family, letting their worldreveal itself. My approach was simple; use a small camera, get close and spend as much time with them as possible. It was a method called hanging around. I worked largely alone and perhaps it was because I had no particular plan that I started to video any fight I heard about and rather than analyse the footage, I would put the tapes away. I was hooked on the thrill of the immediate experience of the fights and found it difficult to take a step back from that to concentrate on how to shape it into a film.
I never intended to film for so many years but I would follow one outbreak of the feud to the next. When the feud temporarily calmed down, usually after a fight had taken place, I never felt that I had reached a conclusion. So I would start filming again when the next round of feuding and fights began.
I filmed with the two other Traveller families, the Joyces and the Nevins, who are involved in this feud but my real focus was on James Quinn McDonagh and his younger brother Michael. For years the tapes lay in a box in my spare bedroom. The Travellers would ask when the film was coming out but I couldn’t finish it. It had gone on too long and I had got into the habit of shooting some material and putting the tapes in the box without looking at them. I had no real idea what material I had.
Finally I decided to contact Ollie Huddleston, a film editor whose work I admired and he agreed to work with me. He then introduced me to my eventual producer, Teddy Leifer.
A film emerged from the box of tapes. What started out, as a fascination with bare knuckle fighting became a film about the relationship between brothers. It became a film about sibling rivalry and the destruction caused by the Traveller obligation to defend their family name.
It took 14 years to get there.”
THE IRISH TRAVELLING PEOPLE
Irish Travellers were traditionally a nomadic people, indigenous to Ireland and with large opulations also in England and America. Although now largely settled in houses and halting sites they are still a culturally rich community who share a common descent, language and lifestyle.
Travellers usually marry within their own extended family circle and place great importance on kinship and family ties, especially in terms of duty and loyalty to the family. They retain a strong and vibrant set of traditions and customs. Traditional forms of employment such as tin smithing, horse-trading and seasonal agricultural labour have died out and now Travellers tend to be self- employed in market trading and dealing, landscape gardening, and general building work. Working for oneself and being independent remain central to their way of life.
Travellers have long campaigned to be recognised as a specific ethnic group in Ireland. Traveller rights organisations have highlighted a history of exclusion and discrimination towards travellers in housing, education and access to healthcare. Travellers tend to have large families and higher rates of infant mortality and lower life expectancy than the general settled population in Ireland.
Bare-knuckle boxing is an intense and brutal activity. For Travellers it is not simply a sport but plays an important role among competing clans as a way to diffuse rivalries and family feuds. Fair Fights, as Travellers call bare-knuckle boxing matches, tend to take place between families who are related by descent and marriage. Fights happen for a variety of reasons. It might be grudges and arguments between individuals or long standing feuds between related families, money bets are sometimes made but more often it is simply a matter of honour and defending your family name. The Irish media has frequently highlighted these clashes and bare-knuckle fights have regularly filled the front pages of Irish newspapers.
ABOUT IAN PALMER – Director Ian trained in film production in
Dublin in the early 1990s. Following a period in Dublin scriptwriting, writing for
Film Ireland and working on a number of short films, he moved to the USA in 1993
where he worked on short documentaries for cable TV in Boston.
His interest in Irish Travellers began on his return to Ireland two years later. He
has made two other films about Irish Travellers including VIDRA, set in Ireland and
Romania and THE MCDONAGH PICTURES, which won the Best Short Documentary award at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2007. KNUCKLE is Ian’s first feature length documentary.