One of the Nevins men, nicknamed Spike, was rather memorable because he says he think the feuds and fights are pointless. Were there many men who were opposed to the fights?
I did find plenty of men who had the point of view that they really shouldn’t be doing this. It’s gone around in a circle, and they're all cousins anyway. But there were very few of them who were gonna articulate that well enough to be persuasive about it. James is a very articulate guy, Spike is a very articulate guy, he has a beautiful way of telling stories and kind of a melancholy about him, and a sadness, as you rightly pointed out.
Big Joe Joyce didn’t have that side at all. He relished fighting and still does; it really is the whole center of his being, and his sons are the same. I never found anyone on the Joyce side who would have that sense, at least not in that particular branch of the Joyces.
In 1992, both families were living in the same house together, side by side. They were friends. It was a quarrel in a pub which got out of hand and went outside and the poor fella got killed.
Did you get the sense that Spike and James were trying to express that sentiment to their families?
James would talk in that way with his family in an intelligent way. You have to remember, James’ sisters married into the Joyce family. At the end of the film, his younger brother Michael is fighting Big Paul Joyce. At the end of the fight, James is saying, “Maggie, a draw is probably for the good. It might settle things down.” He’s talking to his sister Maggie, and Maggie is married into the family of Big Paul Joyce.
So there’s that closeness there. Certainly with James, there’s a big realization that, if you don’t lose and you don’t win, that’s OK. It is about being triumphant over the opposition but it’s really about not losing. They are, when it comes down to it, very close. The same grandparents, the lineage traces back two, three generations.
When pressed about the hate between the families, James eventually opened up to you about a 1992 pub fight in London in which one of the Quinn McDonaghs tragically killed one of the Joyces. Did you find that the young fighters today have a sense of that history, and the animosity that dates back even further, or are they simply fighting to show their clan pride and manliness?
It has become that, I think, but there are recorded clashes between the families going back every decade into the ‘60s and ‘50s and probably before that. I certainly never found out from anyone the first point which started it all off. The 1992 clash, which is a clash between friends really—James’ brother Paddy, who was jailed for manslaughter for the killing of one of the Joyce’s in 1992, they were living in the same house together, side by side, both families. They were friends. It was a quarrel in a pub which got out of hand and went outside and the poor fella got killed.
That then set in motion a chain of events that took over that generation of the two families for the next two decades, from ’92 up until I stopped filming in 2010 really. It’s difficult to find a beginning point, but certainly there were fights and fighting between the families going back several generations at least. And I suspect, if you could look back in time, you’re gonna find clashes all the way back. It’s just the way Traveller men operated. It’s a physical, hearty kind of life and people and they express themselves in this physical way.
For you, as a spectator, how did watching these very personal bare-knuckle fights compare to watching sanctioned professional fights?
I am a fan of boxing, but the whole point of Knuckle really is an exploration of family and the way families, in this particular case, interrelate and sort themselves out through this feuding and fighting. bare-knuckle boxing is a unique selling point of the film, but it’s almost a secondary thing.
The fighting was the thing that got me hooked inititally. Then I filmed the first fight (right), when James beat the opponent easily and won the money; he went back to the pub in Dundalk, which his family was running at the time, and it was like a homecoming of a hero. It was like Cú Chulainn coming back, out of Irish mythology. It really felt like that. That really was what attracted me. I wanted to find out and understand why, in these big families, someone would be at the pinnacle like that. It doesn’t really happen in ordinary families that somebody is on a pedestal like that.
These people really are representing their family and it’s everything on the line. If the Joyces had managed to take James out over the years, it would’ve been game, set, match, even if there’d been 50 fights and the Quinn McDonaghs had won 49, and James had lost the other one. It would’ve been a disaster. So it is really quite different from fighting for a living, which is what professional boxing is all about. This is fighting for…it’s a real guts thing, it’s a heart thing. It has that added thing of families and generations and the whole epic sense of the Traveler world.
So there was something romantic about it all for you?
Yeah. I had a bit of a background studying anthropology at one point in time, and I would’ve been interested in the Travellers as a people I could make films about and it be an enclosed enough world to be able to explore in a kind of controlled way. I’m not sure about romantic, but I would’ve been favorable towards the idea of the group of people that doesn’t have anything to prove and wants to survive in their old traditional way. Even though they weren’t travelling, they still thought of themselves as nomadic, almost mentally nomadic.
But I’ve made two other films about Travellers, and my romanticism kind of left. I’m much more realistic about their world. I see the particular world I explored in Knuckle as a very destructive world. It’s full of honor and people fighting because they’re there to represent their families and all of that, but it really doesn’t solve anything, it doesn’t come to any conclusion. It takes over society and families while these things are happening.
When James would be training, or Michael, or any of the other guys, you have almost every man along to watch their sessions in the gym, wherever that would be. It’s easy to look at it in a romantic way; I’m looking at Facebook pages now and there are lots of people lionizing James and the Traveller way of life. That’s all very well, but I think James would be the first to say, "Forget about it, if possible." The problem is, these guys can’t walk away from it, not really. Their sons, grandsons, great grandsons are just as likely to be fighting in something similar. There are fights every weekend I could go to. So I’m not so romantic about it anymore. I see it more as just an endemic activity.
Speaking of the general work stoppage training and fights cause, what are the financial repercussions of losing the prize money that's bet?
First of all, it’s a lot of money. It starts off, in James’ case, with IR£20,000 [Irish pounds]. You’re going back to 1997, at that time, IR£20,000 would be an annual average wage for most people in Ireland, maybe more. So they’re fighting for a lot of money. By the end, Michael and Big Paul are fighting for €180,000 [euros]. It’s maybe a quarter of a million U.S. dollars.
Where did that money come from? And what are the ramifications if it’s lost? The money comes from the extended family, so it’s not like one person is gonna be cleaned out for life of all the money he ever could get together. You get a lot of people who pitched in €1,000, €500, whatever they could come up with.
If one family had lost €90,000, it certainly would’ve fueled a huge amount of additional tension and probably fighting. Partly they would’ve been wanting to fight to regain some of the money, but also because they’d lost the money, it would’ve been exultation on the other side that they’d taken their money to such an extent. So it ups the ante in terms of the ramifications if you’re gonna lose that much money.
When James was fighting in 2000, he’s fighting against the young challenger, the son of a man he’d beaten years before, Davey Nevins. There’s a scene where I was filming James in the gym, he’s sitting on the edge of the ring, the apron, he turns to me and tells me, “I was really pissed off this morning. I got one of my mates to ring the Nevins to try to add another IR£10,000." He was obviously confident he was gonna win it but he also hadn’t been able to work for the last couple of weeks, and he was trying to pick up an extra few bob.
The bet wasn’t taken and that gave it away that maybe the Nevins weren’t as confident as he was, so it helped in that way. But he was thinking about the money he wasn’t making through his landscape gardening or nightclub security or whatever else he was organizing at the time. So yeah, it has a big effect. The core of the Traveller economy actually is social welfare. Most Travellers would be getting social welfare support. But certainly when everyone is getting sucked in, it is very destructive to the economy. Things go by the way until training is over.