Forget all those criminal Cockney cliches populating Guy Ritchie movies. If you want to see what a real life tough as nails subculture looks like take yourself along to the movies and see Knuckle, which opens in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas on Friday.
A you-are-there portrait of a hardy Irish traveling community in Britain and Ireland, it’s a true to life picture of feuding Irish traveling clans and their long-standing history of violent bare-knuckle boxing.
First we meet James Quinn McDonagh and Paddy “The Lurcher” Joyce, two men who are related by blood but separated by a family feud that dates back generations and whose origins are mostly long forgotten.
As the heads of rival families, they represent what they call their “breeds” through the brutal -- and illegal -- street fights they spend most of their adult lives training for.
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The film’s Irish director Ian Palmer was lucky enough to enjoy the opportunity of a lifetime to profile the community from the inside due to a lucky accident.
One day they needed a cameraman to film a wedding and they had his number. But Palmer had more on his mind than simply capturing the bride on film -- from the beginning the budding documentary filmmaker understood he was witnessing a remarkable and still untold story unfolding.
"I knew nothing about bare knuckle boxing growing up," Palmer tells the Irish Voice. "I hadn’t even seen travelers, I was brought up in south County Dublin.” In the nineties he had aspirations to become a scriptwriter, spending time in Los Angles pursuing his dreams. They didn't work out.
"I came back to Dublin when I had gotten tired of sleeping on someone’s couch. I had also been trying to raise funds in Ireland for a film but there was no funding, the Film Board was only really getting up and going then. It was difficult to get any money,” Palmer recalls.
Meanwhile, a friend of Palmer's had been doing community video work with Irish travelers, and so he went along one day to meet them out of curiosity. In the process he got to know the McDonagh traveler clan, who at the time were living on the outskirts of Navan, Co. Meath.
"I started going to the markets with them with a camera. One of the men at a fair day was pointed out to me. ‘Watch out for him,’ they said, ‘he’s a wide boy – and a fighter.’ The man turned out to be James Quinn McDonagh, the fighter I profile in Knuckle."
Palmer's familiarity with the clan was increasing, and one day out of the blue he was asked if he wanted to come along and witness a traveler wedding. The young bride was 17 and she was marrying her first cousin, he was told.
“I had been hanging out with a camera and so they asked me if I would film them for a potential project. That’s where I met the fighter James Quinn McDonagh and his brother Michael. But nothing was said to me about bare knuckle boxing at that time," Palmer said.
The family liked the footage Palmer shot, and a week later he got a call from Curly Paddy McDonagh saying his brother James was training for a fight, and would Palmer like to meet him? Palmer said yes and they took him to a boxing club in Darndale, Co. Dublin.
Because he wasn’t pushing hard to gain access, Palmer ended up being granted complete access to the families and their daily lives.
“It was a complete fluke that I was in the right place at the right time. Once I learned they were fighting I learned there was money involved too. But it really was about family honor and representing your family and your name or your breed as they say," he says.
Travelers are seen as uncontrolled, undisciplined people, Palmer says. But within their world there’s real order he says.
"Girls are chaperoned, matches are made by parents, and fights are set up and negotiated before they happen. In fact, if someone steps out of line, they’re disqualified. So the process of making the film changed my, and I think the audience’s, perception of who they are,” Palmer said.
Travelers aren’t this primitive kind of group on the edge of society, he says. They’re different, but they’re an extremely ordered culture.
"There are lots of reasons these guys fight. There’s a culture of it. But there’s also a keen awareness of the dysfunction these fights cause in the traveler community. Everything closes down in the families when a fight is happening,” Palmer says.
You have to ask, at what point will the mothers step in to end this brutal, pointless and bloody generational slug fest? As the film progresses ever more unsettling questions about men and violence and money and pride rise up until you -- like some of the fighters -- want to raise your hands to end it too.
Catch Knuckle at the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street. Here's the trailer: