I suspect those of you who know anything about Irish Travellers are like myself, i.e., all that you know you learned from Snatch. In that film, Brad Pitt memorably played Mickey O’Neil, an Irish gypsy who is also a bareknucle boxing champ. Well Irish Travellers are real and they do indeed get their knuckles bloody. Knuckle is the result of director Ian Palmer having spent well over a decade filming (primarily) the fights of the Quinn McDonaghs, a family/clan of Irish Travellers, and their many bareknuckle fights with enemy clans. Those other clans, such as the Joyces and the Nevins, are bitter rivals of the Quinn McDonaghs as a result of decades-long blood feuds. Each clan remembers clearly how and why these feuds started, but those reasons no longer matter — it’s all about blood and pride now.
Since the mid-90’s, these families have been enmeshed in a seemingly unbreakable circle. One clan sends a video to another clan, full of bad-mouthing and taunting. That clan, in turn, calls them out, and each send fighters to duke it out for a purse put up by both clans. After the fights, things seem to generally settle down for a bit but before long, another taunt is put out there and the gauntlet is once again thrown down. As we’re told in the film, not every clan member fights, but ever clan has fighters. The primary rules of the fights are no gloves and no rests, although there is a surprising semblance of order to the process — members of neutral clans act as referees, breaking things up whenever the fighters start to grapple, head-butt, bite, etc. But fights will not be called by the refs — the fighters have to yield, agree on a draw, or go down swinging. A fight day can see up to seven bouts between to clans, lasting many hours, and although the fighters train for months leading up to the showdown, the ensuing fights lack most of the talent and finesse of the Sweet Science.
The film shows footage from quite a few fights and there is no doubt they’re brutal, although not much more so than your typical UFC match. In between the fights, we see footage mostly of folks getting ready for the fights or talking about the fights, with that footage primarily focused on James “The Mighty” Quinn McDonagh and his younger brother Mike. James became a legend among the bareknuckle boxers in the 90’s but, now, has put that life behind him (though he no longer fights, he does still act as a referee for fights between other clans). Younger brother Mike, meanwhile, still fights (viciously) and appears to have far more anger behind his swings than James ever did. These clips explain why the clans fight, and explore the tragedy of it all — the fact that these clans are really nothing more than a massively splintered family, with each clan having many members who are close relatives of the other clans (the wife of one Quinn McDonagh, for example, is in fact both a Joyce and a Nevin, and many clan members are cousins to their rivals).
Unfortunately, there’s not more to the film than that, and it winds up falling flat and feeling a bit too long. Some documentaries go too wide in scope, when they might have been better served honing in on a more limited part of their subject (for example, in my recent review of Bobby Fischer Against the World, I found myself wishing the focus had been more exclusively on the middle third of the film). Knuckle suffers from the opposite problem — the world of Irish Traveller “fair fights” turns out not to be interesting enough to really sustain the movie. If, instead, Knuckle had been Irish Travellers, pulling back a bit to show us more about the travelers themselves, how they live, how they earn, how and why they move around, etc., it would have been a far more effective and interesting film. Given the thick Irish brogues, Knuckle wisely provides subtitles. However, you quickly become accostomed to the brogues, and realize that the subtitles leave out quite a bit of nuance and color of what’s being said. So too is Knuckle missing the nuance and color about its subject.
Knuckle screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition.