Directed by Ian Palmer
For the last 12 years, Ian Palmer has been following Irish traveller families around the country as they settle disputes with one another by bare knuckle boxing. The families in question include the Joyce’s and the Nevin’s, but we mainly follow James Quinn McDonagh and his brothers. Maybe the term ‘family’ is wrong, as the Quinn McDonagh’s, the Joyce’s and the Nevin’s are relatives of each other in some form. However, each separate family are clans and they fight for their name and to settle arguments. In return, the winner retains his pride and often receives a cash prize.
The film opens with a fight between James Quinn McDonagh and Paddy Joyce, the younger brother of Big Joe Joyce. There appears to be bad blood between the two families for 50 years and through the course of the film, we discover just why the hatred is more than the average traveller dispute.
Ian Palmer first started filming the travellers in 1997 and around this time, the families would record messages on videotape to send to their rivals, provoking their opponents and declaring how their family is the best. A fight between the families would be set up and could include one or even multiple family members. One of the bare knuckle fights shown in Knuckle was a day of 7 fights between the families. Each family involved in the fight would choose a neutral referee to ensure there was fair play.
The rules of a fight are as follows: no biting, no headbutting, no kicking. All clean punches. No gloves to be worn. No holding or clinching. When a man is down, you must let him get back up onto his feet and not punch him when he’s down. There are no rest periods or rounds. A fight will last until one man is knocked out or one offers out his hand and calls it quits. The odd time there can be a draw where both opponents call it quits and shake hands. A fighter will be disqualified if he does not adhere to the above rules.
Money also plays a big part in the fights, where each family will stump up the same amount of cash and the winner takes it all. The first fight as I mentioned above saw the winner going home with £19,000. Later on in the film, we see a rematch between Michael Quinn McDonagh (the brother of James) and Paul Joyce (the brother of Big Joe), and each family submitted £60,000 to the fight kitty. With pride, family respect and big money at stake, the men take their fights extremely seriously.
In the middle of the film, a fight is shown where the Joyce’s and Quinn McDonagh’s appear to be on neutral terms with one another, as James is called to referee a match between King of the Traveller’s, Big Joe Joyce and Aney McGinley. However, the two families are back as enemies fairly quickly as more fights are set up between them.
This documentary is a brilliant look into the lives of a traveller. Where some people settle disputes in court or with the aid of the police, the travellers sort it out with bare fist fights. No knives or weapons like the youth of today – just good ol’ fashioned fisticuffs. The film is well structured, showing the brutal, hard hitting nature of the fights. Just as in real life, we are treated to sights of the fighters with black eyes and blood pouring down their face from a bust nose. The reality is that any of these men could be seriously or fatally injured in these fights. This is a real mens sport and despite the concerns from the women travellers, bare knuckle boxing is a tradition and a way to settle arguments that will undoubtably carry on as long as the Irish travelling community continue.
This film is a must see for those interested in boxing and the traveller communities. Unlike most films taken from an outsiders view point, Ian was invited into the circle by the families themselves and I think he has given them a fair and neutral representation in this film.
Paddy Doherty, an ex bare knuckle fighter traveller seen in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and currently in Channel Five’s Big Brother can be spotted in the background of the Michael Quinn McDonagh and Paul Joyce rematch at the end of the film, acting as referee.