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Sundance review: ‘Knuckle’ opens a window on Irish fighting clans

January 27th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By Max Dahl

PARK CITY–Knuckle: the delving exploration inside the Irish Travelers way of settling clan disputes; bare-knuckle fights.

The film opens on James Quinn McDonagh ransacking a punching bag in a ring, exploring every angle and inch with his fists. He unleashes punches beyond half a minute, uninterrupted.

“He is a charming character that is hard to dislike,” said director Ian Palmer, “and in a certain way, very open.”

He also wins fights for the Quinn McDonagh’s. He is 6’3” and solid. His fourth fight is documented early and wins him £ 10,000.

“I don’t want to fight, that’s why I require the money,” said McDonagh. “I don’t train year round, only when a fight comes up. But fighting doesn’t change anything. I don’t want to fight anymore.”

There are over 30,000 Travelers in Ireland, classified as a nomadic ethnic group, ruled by traditional masculine values. Palmer spent 12 years documenting the deeply-rooted animosity between disputing clans, and lamented after the screening about the system.

“It is impossible to change the culture,” said Palmer. “It’s like the sons or daughters of doctors; they grow up wanting to be doctors because they see their parents as doctors. Since childhood, their heroes have been fighting.”

This rivalry began in 1992, when Brian Joyce was killed by a Quinn McDonagh, and has only intensified as a marriage between cousins connected the Quinn McDonagh and Joyce clans further. Inflammatory tapes are sent back and forth, full of boasting, insulting and calling for fights with specific members of the family. Fights are arranged with third-party judges who ensure that the fights are fair and also when fighters are defeated, everyone disperses peaceably. Systematic rules of engagement are strictly enforced, and when a Quinn McDonagh begins to bite after taking a beating, the fight is called. Each punch landed would elicit a cry from the audience as blood spattered across combatant’s faces.

If James Quinn McDonagh is the leader of his clan, Joey Joyce is his nemesis. Throughout the documentary, comparisons of Quinn McDonagh’s attempts to dissuade fighting, Joyce is calling out 20-year-old Quinn McDonaghs and soaking his hands in petrol daily to “make them like stones.”

There is hope in the film, as one father decides that his son won’t fight early in his life.

Palmer observed that the fruitless practice disrupts family life, work schedules and the entire community. The fights are regulated and refereed between consenting adults, some of which nearly merited Olympic medals, but training can last 6-8 weeks and leave jobs unmanned for most to all of that time.

“It was a pretty interesting slice of life we have never experienced,” said Sundance attendee Nick Harden. “It was more than a feud, more like a lifestyle that included gambling and a tribalistic coming-of-age for males. But, it wasn’t as violent as I thought it would be.”


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