It is uncontroversial to say all families have disagreements at some point. Perhaps, in the most unpleasant of events, exchanges between relatives can be heated. In the extraordinarily worst of circumstances, physical. Cue 'Knuckle', a documentary about 3 related Irish travelling communities that have feuded for 12 years, regularly meeting to settle differences in bare-knuckle fights. Fights don’t tend to end until the other man’s face resembles a bowl of tinned spaghetti Bolognese.
The incident that sets the film in motion is a brawl outside a London pub in 1992 involving members of the Joyce and Quinn families. Somewhere in the senseless melee, a Joyce dies and a Quinn is convicted of manslaughter. This event sets in motion years of hate fuelled machismo between the clans, resulting in organised bare-knuckle fights in country lanes and secluded urban yards. Cousins, brothers, second cousins, in-laws, most of whom are unrelated to the original hostility, pummel each other into submission.
If you are looking for acute and deep insight into an Irish sub-culture, this really is not it. The documentary jumps back and forth in time to create a feckless narrative that only helps to bolster stereotypes of gypsy communities. The focus is largely on the fisticuffs. The fighting is regulated by criminal middlemen; no biting, no kicking and no “foul play”. The mothers, sisters and aunties are sidelined by both the men in the community and, to a certain extent, the documentary as well.
The money bet on each fight incentivises rematches and grudges, potentially tapping into questions about financial support for travelling communities, but the theme is not explored. Most nauseating of all, the young boys in the family are invited to watch the bloodshed. They are, after all, the next generation to carry on vendettas and a feud that is of little providence.
12 years down the line in one fight, after mashing each other’s face in a way that puts UFC to shame, the combatants comically argue about who initiated that very fight. The concrete details of the feud have disintegrated to everyone, leaving an overarching sense of misplaced pride about defending a family name. This is important to note as it is not revenge that motivates these fights but cumulative bitterness that is perpetuated by a mindless sequence of pompous brutality.
The documentary’s small reprieve lies in James Macdonagh Quinn’s understanding that the fighting is “stupid”. His determination to leave bare-knuckle fighting is dragged down by what becomes a tradition of violence and artificial threats to family reputation. Shit-stirrers of all clans easily exploit pride through YouTube style video taunts. A fair point James makes is that organised and regulated fights stop gang violence, which begs a final question: who will end this cycle of violence?
Mediation this ain’t.
'Knuckle' is available to purchase at amazon.co.uk etc.