In the 2000 Guy Ritchie movie Snatch, Brad Pitt played a shady, barely intelligible Irish gypsy bare-knuckle champion, Mickey O'Neil, to great comedic effect. Despite similarities to the character, you wouldn't want to laugh at the real, and very proud, men, known as Travellers, who inspired him. Not only do they pack a mean punch, but they also hold a grudge better than most.
In his documentary Knuckle, out now in the U.S., Irish filmmaker Ian Palmer takes viewers inside the secretive Traveller world, where men from different clans regularly square off in fights to make money, but primarily to defend their family's honor and knock the stuffing out of rivals they bitterly hate. Palmer spent over a decade with the Quinn McDonagh, Joyce, and Nevin families to document not only the scraps but their impact upon the Traveller community. Complex spoke to him to discuss the origins of the feuds, the diss videos families make, and why the cycle of violence won't ever stop.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Travellers are typically secretive and wary of outsiders. How did you overcome any distrust of you they might have had to film their bare-knuckle boxing culture?
I suppose that goes back to, really, how I got to know Travellers. I didn’t go out of my way looking for Travellers. I’d been writing fiction scripts and not getting anywhere with that, and a friend of mine had been making short educational films with Travellers. Just out of curiosity, I went along to meet some people he was working with and they happened to be Quinn McDonaghs—not [featured bare-knuckle boxers] James and Michael’s immediate family but cousins of theirs.
They were very open, and they all lived in a group housing scheme, as they call it in Ireland. It was a group of houses with all the cousins and brothers and aunts and uncles living together. I just started hanging out with those people, and we got along very well. They had a big collection of photographs, and I was very interested in looking at that and starting to tell stories, using their photographs. That’s really where I got to know Travellers first, in 1996.
When one of the girls from one of their extended families, Jacqueline, was getting married to her first cousin [Michael], her parents asked me did I want to go down to the wedding [and film]. I said yes, I did and at the wedding I met James, and that’s how I met the brothers. At that time I didn’t know anything about bare-knuckle boxing, but I found James and Michael and a few of their buddies intriguing, interesting characters. I just wanted to get to know more Travellers at that time, and they asked me to come along for the training session James was having.
I think it was because I wasn’t a journalist looking for some kind of a story. I wasn’t knocking on the door desperately trying to get in. That was one of the reasons why they felt more comfortable with me, and it was a process of getting to know them and them getting to know me, and shooting a fight, and then starting to talk to them about making a film. It was just a process of one step after another.
Were there individuals who were wary of you, or issues that people were hesitant to talk to you about?
When I shot the first fight, I started talking to the broader family about [the idea of shooting a film]. I’d say, “Look, this is an amazing way of carrying on, families that are very closely related, all getting intermarried, and at the same time fighting each other. I’d love to explore the fights and the whole culture in a film.” A lot of the older people, who I got to know first, said, “Yeah, it is a great idea for a film, but they’ll never let you do it, the guys.” Funnily enough, the guys involved in the fights, they didn’t really have any hesitancy at all. They were confident in what they were doing.
The Quinn McDonaghs were continually telling me about this guy Big Joe Joyce and what a ferocious, unpredictable guy he was and how it would be very dangerous for me to go meet him.
The aspect of their lives that they didn’t want filmed was the whole moneymaking side of life. They’re all…let’s call it “self-employed businessmen” doing whatever it takes to try to make a dollar. [Laughs.] That was kind of off limits, apart from the basic work they’d be doing, which would be landscape gardening or building work, that kind of thing.
The other aspect which was difficult to film—it wasn’t that it was out of bounds, it was just difficult—was women. Within Traveller culture, women are still protected in some ways. They’re chaperoned before they’re married and then expected not to go out in a way men can just go out and socialize. They don’t do that on their own. And so me being a single man at that time, that was probably.... If I had a female co-partner I think I might’ve gotten more footage with women. But then again, as the thing evolved, it was always gonna be a film about the male side of Traveller life anyway.
And you did eventually get a scene of women sitting around and discussing their opinions of the fights.
Yeah, the fact is you only need to get that kind of scene once to get that kind of insight. The insight that the older women gave me was crucial to the film. [In contrast to] the bravado that came out of the men, it showed the destructive side of this whole activity. The women who talked, one was James’ mother, and the other was his aunt Nelly, and what they said was very, very touching. For me, in some ways it’s my favorite scene in the film.
How did you get that footage?
It was just one of those things that happens. I’d been out filming all day and it’d been quite a stressful day. I’d been refused access to a big fight. I came back and shot the aftermath there with everyone watching the footage on a TV set up outside the trailer. Then all the guys and the younger women went to the pub and I just stayed back to have a cup of tea before wrapping up and going home. The women had been hyped up before that and they were all calming down. They were talking and I stuck my camera on my shoulder and asked, "Is that OK?" They said OK, and they just opened up in front of me.
With this kind of filming, you have to put yourself in position enough times for things to happen. A fella who filmed this stuff with me at one point said my approach was almost like wildlife filming. You’re out in the prairie and waiting for a lion to come by and jump on an antelope, and you have no control over that. You just have to wait and hope.
Did you encounter hesitancy on the part of other clans or families because your initial introduction was through the Quinn McDonaghs?
I thought I would, funnily enough. The first people I got to know were James and his family, and then he fought the Joyce family, and that was the next family I really had to get to know. I thought there would be a problem with that. Apart from everything, the Quinn McDonaghs were continually telling me about this guy Big Joe Joyce (right), and what a ferocious, unpredictable guy he was and how it would be very dangerous for me to go meet him. That was their perspective. Maybe they were just trying to discourage me from meeting with him, for all I know.
But once I plucked up the courage to lift up the phone and say, “Look, this is who I am and this is what I’m hoping to do,” he, as the leader of his family, was totally open. He said, “Come on down.” I went down to his house with a camera and he allowed me to film with him straightaway, and then on numerous times I revisited. I was accepted by Big Joe Joyce the same was I was accepted by James.
Then the second of the feuds is the Quinn McDonaghs versus the Nevins. Again, I lifted the phone and I made a phone call. I met them beforehand to have a chat to see if I could come down [and film them]. The first time I met them with a camera is the scene in the caravan where all the guys are sitting around talking. They were just telling their story, and it opened up like that.
It was difficult to make the first step, but once that first step was made, each other step opened up. I always had enough access to the other families to give the film a sense of balance.