By Sijin Kurian
Knuckle is a documentary that delves into the secretive Irish Traveller community and explores their settling of feuds by way of bare-knuckle boxing matches. Director Ian Palmer spent 12 years off and on documenting one family in particular, the Quinn McDonaghs, and their feuds with other families, namely the Joyces.
Palmer got the opportunity to film a match between James Quinn McDonagh, the best boxer out of his family, against Paddy Joyce, who was supposed to be the best fighter from the Joyces. It would end up a one-sided beating by the hands of James. It turned out, Paddy isn’t all there in the head, or so his family said. So, the feuding resumed, and the cycle goes on. The Joyces keep on challenging the Quinn McDonaghs and vice versa, no matter who wins. The families send tapes to each other, calling each other out for fights like a pro wrestling vignette.
The film serves up a lesson that violence never solves anything, even if that violence is done in an organized sport, if you’d want to call it that, with strict rules and regulations. And boy, do they have rules and regulations. The fight is watched over by two refs from neutral families, and is usually done on a neutral site with only a few members from the participating families in attendance to prevent any escalating violence. While feuds between families are supposed to be the main cause for the fights, another is money. Money is always exchanged at fights. Each side brings however much money the two parties agreed upon and they hand it over to a neutral family at the battle grounds. The winner of the fight gets all the money (in the film, the money was in the tens of thousands of British pounds), which generally goes back to their whole clan.
There’s a telling scene after one of James’ victories. While the men are celebrating and watching his match, most of the women in the Quinn McDonaghs are all together and venting their thoughts. They found the whole fighting thing to be pointless. No matter what anyone says, the feuds never end. Some family members will trash talk the other side, and the cycle will repeat itself. On top of that, the Joyces, the Quinn McDonaghs, and the other Traveller families are all related. They inter-marry with one another, so the men are fighting their cousins, uncles, and nephews. They are all from the same family.
Knuckle is a fascinating look into one aspect of Traveller life. You don’t get the whole picture, and the one you do get isn’t quite pretty. After one fights ends, you can see the next one beginning as the winner’s family gets in front of the camera and starts calling out people. As the years go by, nothing really changes. A new generation of young men will come up, eager to prove themselves. As a fighter myself, it makes me examine my own motivations. Glory? It’s certainly not for my family’s honor. as my parents think what I do is pointless. Then again, is this how they see me the same as how I view the guys in this film?