Ian Palmer’s documentary of bare-knuckle fighting in the Irish Traveller community is a gritty and at times fascinating watch but it still left me feeling wholly dispirited.

The refereed fights are a tradition by which feuding traveller families settle their quarrels and Palmer spent more than 12 years recording the bouts. The film’s core is the ages-old warring between the Joyces and the Quinn McDonaghs. There has evidently been bad blood simmering between them for generations and Palmer finally teases out that a fatality back 1992 reignited the animosity. They’ve been trading taunts and challenges through home videos ever since, with everything coming to a head for sporadic, crunching face-offs.

Copy picture

There are colourful, magnetic characters on either side. Palmer spends some time with fearsome patriarch and ‘King of the Travellers’ Joe Joyce, but for the most part we follow the undefeated James Quinn McDonagh and his younger brother Michael, pretender to the crown. The victor’s shoulders carry the right to own the feud, the whole clan’s respect and huge sums of money, so the training is intense, the pressure inexorable and the fighting impassioned.

The contests onscreen couldn’t be further from the eulogised duels set up to entertain us in Fight Club, the Warrior or Rocky. The frantic scuffling and quiet slaps that break noses, faces and pride are real, grubby and spare affairs. With such raw energy, rage and fear on display, though, it’s a visceral almost primal watch, and not unlike rubbernecking a particularly vivid car crash. That the fights are usually held in a wet farmyard or in the middle of a country lane only adds to the stark reality of it all.

The fighters are usually related in some way and Palmer sees brothers and cousins fighting brothers and cousins, repeatedly. And to what end? Everyone seems to say that the fighting helps sort out problems while at the same time acknowledging that the clashes can only continue. Nothing is resolved and the losing party always kicks back for more later on. This really hits home when we first see children taunting or celebrating with the adults, later contrasted with a wooded lane where two bloodied OAPs yet again duke it out.

The few women who speak on the film respect the traditional ways of their Traveller community, as does Palmer, but they also profess frustration at the testosterone-fuelled futility they see. You have to agree.

Palmer successfully captures the abundant passion, charisma and loyalty of those involved, yet inescapably through the prism of the community shows a wider, bleaker picture. Maybe Knuckle’s sucker punch is to suggest that whatever people say or however they reason it, sometimes we’re just going to carry on fighting each other.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2011
Share this with others on...
Knuckle packshot
An 12-year journey into the brutal and secretive world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting.
Amazon link

Director: Ian Palmer

Starring: James Quinn McDonagh, Michael Quinn McDonagh, Joe Joyce, Michael Joyce, Ditsy Nevin, Curly Paddy

Year: 2011

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Ireland, UK

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Strength And Honour