Bare-Faced and Bare-Knuckled: Fighting Traveller Families


Don’t let the bandaged fist in the photo fool you. Knuckle, Ian Palmer’s documentary about the bare-fisted boxing tradition of the Irish Travellers, might be about blood, but it’s not about gore. The blood Palmer seems most interested in is the stuff that pumps through the veins of the intricately connected Traveller community he visited and filmed over 12 years, a society where cousins marry, work together and, when the occasion arises, beat each other senseless.

“I wanted to make a film from inside their world,” Palmer told indie/WIRE when Knuckle premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. “The idea and the approach was simple. I spent as much time as I could with the families with a minimal crew and small camera.”

His approach resonated at HBO, which is adapting the documentary into a new drama series. Industry blogs hint that the HBO treatment will trend toward dark comedy, since it is being developed by writer Irvine Welsh (author of the gritty novel Trainspotting, on which the film of the same name was based), and director Jody Hill of Rough House Pictures, the project’s producer, whose politically incorrect comedy Easthouse & Down also airs on HBO.

Knuckle will have its New York premiere on September 30 at Irish Film New York, which will feature five other recent Irish releases. This new screening series of contemporary Irish films is co-presented by New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, and runs September 30 through October 2 at NYU’s Cantor Film Center.

Festival founder and curator Niall McKay, who is also the founder and director of the San Francisco Irish Film Festival and co-founder of the LA Irish Film Festival, said he deliberately chose films for the series that depict Ireland as it is today.

“I particularly wanted films that had a real physical effect on me,” he said, “ones that made me cry or laugh or get angry.”

“We’re pleased that Niall McKay has chosen to work with Glucksman Ireland House to present this excellent addition to the city’s arts scene,” said Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Chair of the Glucksman Ireland House NYU Advisory Board. She praised the festival for presenting “works that would not otherwise be seen by a wide audience.  It should be an exciting experience for our Irish American community.”  

Besides Knuckle, Irish Film New York will also feature the New York premieres of the Galway Film Fleadh-winning Parked with Colm Meany, a study of a friendship between two men who live in their cars, and The Runway, the story of a downed pilot in Cork rescued by a little boy, with Weeds star Demián Bichir.  Other films include the bittersweet coming-of-ager, 32A, directed by Marion Quinn, a hilarious peek at Dublin teenagers called Pyjama Girls, and Sensation, about a man who tries to lose his virginity but ends up running a brothel. Directors and stars of the films will appear at Q&A sessions after each screening.

There will also be an industry panel in conjunction with NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where filmmakers and producers will discuss the direction of Irish film at home and abroad. 

McKay says the mission of Irish Film New York is to expose American audiences to the best in Irish contemporary cinema and to give Irish filmmakers “a fair crack at the U.S. market.”  It will join with the San Francisco and Los Angeles Irish Film Festivals to bring the filmmakers of Knuckle, Parked, and The Runway on a tri-city tour in anticipation of each film’s U.S. release. Knuckle will appear in independent U.S. theatres this December, with The Runway and Parked following shortly after.
Director Palmer admitted to Irish Independent Weekend that he did not approach the filming of Knuckle like an investigative journalist.

“It was more about observing the [Traveller] families and trying to let the life reveal itself. The reasons behind the fighting were difficult to get at. The feuds stretched back over generations. It was always about defending your name and family pride.”

The three rival families that he studied, the Quinn McDonaghs, the Nevins and the Joyces, are all related, often sharing the same grandparents. As one of the women remarks, “We’re all one in the end.” Even if a Nevin married a Quinn, or a Quinn has a mother who is a Joyce, the rationale for fighting rests on defending just one family’s name.

While Palmer is able to ferret out the powerful origin of one particular feud, the sources of the disputes don’t seem as important as the disputes themselves. “Would it not be possible for you guys to get together to talk about it and make up?” the director asks Michael Quinn McDonagh, on his way to a fight in England. “You’re crazy,” Michael laughs, dumfounded at Palmer’s naiveté.