An 'unpretentious, poignant and unsettling' documentary about fighting Irish travellers

Friction between the O'Donnells, O'Neills, O'Reillys, and O'Kanes is Irish history folklore. Seemingly, these clans have been fighting forever, so it is no surprise that family feuding, albeit on a much lesser scale, continues in todays Ireland.

Knuckle, a new documentary directed by Ian Palmer and produced by the Irish Film Board and Rise Films, depicts the long simmering hatred between two modern Irish traveler families, the Quinn McDonaghs and their cousins, the Joyces.

Filmmaker Palmer first became aware of the antipathy between the two clans when, in 1997, he was asked to videotape the wedding of Michael Quinn McDonagh. He spent the next 12 years filming not only the fisticuffs, but also recording interviews with family members.

It is this tight focus on the feuding cousins that makes Knuckle so unpretentious, poignant and, although occasionally, largely very unsettling.

Rather than sitting down to sort out grievances over a pint of the black stuff, each family chooses to send out their hardest duke to challenge the other in a series of bloody, bare knuckle boxing matches.

Such encounters, which vary in length from a few round arm swings to marathons lasting over four hours, are refereed by clan elders. The Marquis of Queensbury rules are nowhere in sight, but ‘fairness and clean fighting’ (no biting, headbutting or below the belt punches) is rigorously enforced.

Fights are staged along the remote back roads of Ireland (seemingly in the Dundalk district), or on suitable waste ground, car parks and farmyards, with sizable purses at stake for the victor. On one remarkable occasion, when the Garda learn that a bare knuckle fight is to be staged in Longford, 200 armed police are sent in to ensure it does not take place.

The women sensibly highlight the futility of it all, yearning for a cessation to the feuding, the roots of which stem from a fatal incident in 1992. However, the male protagonists of both families appear hooked on the money making aspects of the fights. Up to £120,000 is on offer for the winner of a bout.

A number of the characters, including James Quinn McDonagh and Big Joe Joyce, appear larger than life and colourfully compelling. Nevertheless, there is something dispiriting and embarrassing in witnessing the cloddish antics of these Irish families locked in to the perpetuation of a never-ending cycle of violence.

Filmed mostly on a handheld camera, which adds intimacy to the fights, these brutal bouts between grown men (sometimes even grandfathers) raining clumsy blows and insults on one another, are a stark contrast to the slickly choreographed fights associated with modern, commercial action movies.

Arguably worth viewing as an example of the primitive motives that lie just beneath the surface of every civilized society, this movie is not for the squeamish, or for those with a low battle fatigue threshold.

Perhaps encouraged by the popularity of cage fighting, and the very positive reaction that Knuckle received at the most recent Sundance Film Festival, it is reported that HBO (USA) has purchased the remake rights and plans to turn Knuckle into a television series.

Knuckle is on general release from August 5.