Today: February 21, 2024
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Knuckle

Two men, stripped to the waist, enter the shot, face each other. The rules are simple; no biting, no head-butting, no punching below the belt.

The footage is grainy, washed out, flares. It looks like what it is; a cheap 15-year-old home movie, shot on VHS, handheld, down and dirty. It shows a quiet country lane somewhere in Ireland. It looks chilly, middle-aged, overweight men in outdoor jackets, their breath misting in front of them. Cars block either end of the lane.

Two men, stripped to the waist, enter the shot, face each other. The rules are simple; no biting, no head-butting, no punching below the belt. There are no rounds, no breaks. The fight goes on until one man is knocked out or gives up. The men start to circle and jab at each other, bare-knuckles striking meat, welts and bruises blossoming on their faces and bodies, blood bursting from split skin, their flesh tenderised. The men are cousins, their families bitter enemies, the fight is the latest skirmish in a decades-long vendetta. Welcome to the world of Irish Traveller bare-knuckle boxing.

If your knowledge of the Traveller community comes only from Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding you’re in for a shock. Filmed over the course of 12 years by first-time director Ian Palmer, Knuckle is a bruising affair. In 1997, after agreeing to video the Traveller wedding of young bridegroom Michael Quinn McDonagh, Palmer was introduced to Michael’s older brothers, James and Paddy. A few weeks later Paddy called him, told him James has a ‘fair fight’ (bare-knuckle boxing match) coming up and asked him to video the bout. Palmer agreed and found himself being sucked into a violent subculture built on pride and blood.

The feud between the two families, the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces, had raged for generations and forms the spine of the film as Palmer follows first James, then younger brother Michael, over the decades as they find themselves defending their family honour. Each family makes inflammatory video tapes, taunting their enemies, insulting them, challenging them. Each family puts forward a champion to fight for them (usually James), betting heavily on the winner (again, usually James).

Raw and brutal, Palmer depicts the fights in unflinching, excruciating detail. These are neither the choreographed cinematic confections we’re used to from the movies or the balletically graceful contests between trained sportsmen we’re used to from professional boxing. These are human cockfights featuring mostly shambling, overweight, out-of-shape thugs knocking 7 shades out of each other, Palmer’s camera taking you to the heart of the action, capturing the horror and the allure of violence, Palmer himself becoming first addicted to the vicarious thrills of the fights and then disgusted as he finds himself filming a particularly nasty fight between two grandfathers, one of them the self-styled King of the Travellers, Big Joe Joyce.

The film provides no easy answers to the cycle of violence the families find themselves in; the men are completely seduced by the glamour of the violence, the women just want it to stop. Only James, the laconic, charismatic, reluctant champion of the Quinn McDonagh’s, displays any form of insight or self-awareness, finally condemning the fights and his part in them.

Visceral and compelling, Knuckle is a fascinating portrait of an invisible society.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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