One of the most interesting parts of the Traveller culture is that families continually make insult and challenge videos and send them to their rivals, just like rappers do on diss songs or street DVDs. What is the origin of the videos?
The first video of a Traveller fight, so far as I’m aware, was 1990. It’s very old, grainy footage, but it’s on YouTube. One of the guys who was fighting was one of the old guys who appear halfway into my film. Big Joe Joyce fights a smaller, older man. The smaller guy, Aney McGinley, fought in the famous fight in 1990.
The [diss] DVDs are made and they get copied and they spread out among the various families, partially to insult and get a reaction and partly as entertainment value.
It’s only after that fight that small cameras started to become available. Somewhere in the ‘90s, these fight insult tapes started to happen. But that’s a thriving activity at the moment. There’s DVDs, especially from the Joyces—they have a bit of a line in putting out DVDs insulting various people they want to fight. It’s a big activity still.
In fact, in the end of the film, in Curly Paddy’s trailer, it just happened spontaneously that Paddy came in with this portable DVD player and stuck it down on the table, and he had just received the DVD you see with Big Joe challenging anyone to fight, just an old man desperate for a fight. And that’s really what happens: The DVDs are made and they get copied and they spread out among the various families, partially to insult and get a reaction and partly as entertainment value. It’s nothing to do with Curly Paddy because Joe was challenging and insulting another family but he wanted to see that tape, and that’s what happens. Those are part of the landscape of Traveller entertainment. [Laughs.]
Has that practice moved to Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter now?
I have seen people insulting each other on Facebook. I’d say almost everybody seems to be on Facebook. Lots of kids, but lots of the older fellas as well. Twitter, I haven’t seen any Travellers on, but they may be. On YouTube, there’s certainly lots of both fight and insult tapes posted. The Joyces and their current opponent are putting up insult tapes all the time. So they’re very active on social media.
Do most of the people hurling insults actually fight?
This is what happens: Usually, very often the morning of a fight, every member of a family gathers together to wherever the fighter is gonna be to give them a sendoff, and very often there’s a camera there, and almost always people will talk into the camera saying what they think, and some people get out of control and say stuff about someone in the other family, and that’s how that footage sometimes is gathered together, from that kind of environment.
People who aren’t particularly involved in the fighting that day or maybe not at all, everyone’s getting a head up and they’re having their say. So yeah, there’s plenty people who talk. There’s not so many who fight, although there’s plenty of Travellers who go out for a bare-knuckle fight. The default sport for Travellers is ring boxing as they’re growing up. And they’re very successful at it, young Traveller boys, and then as they get into their teenage years and their early manhood, have been very successful; they’re winning national championships. The last Olympics, there were several Travellers both on the English and the Irish teams.
You have over a decade of footage. Is there any one thing you wish you could’ve fit into the film that you weren’t able to?
There were a few scenes. The Quinn McDonaghs came over from Ireland to fight the Joyces in Luton, which is near London. We got off the ferry and were heading down and they went into a place in North Wales where Travellers go, a monastery with a holy well in the center of it that goes back to the Middle Ages. It wasn’t hot weather but they all stripped off and each of them in turn bent down and a bucket of water was thrown over their head for luck for the fight coming up. I didn’t get the scene well enough. I really wish I’d gotten it because it just gave it another level of tradition. That’s one thing I missed.
There’s another scene I do regret not putting in, but it slowed the momentum of the film. A film takes on its own momentum and you’re heading to a point, which for me was the Michael vs. Big Paul fight, and then the aftermath with James reflecting on it. As we’re going towards the fight in Luton, Michael and James got into a big argument that really summed up the relationship between the two of them, this conflict of a younger brother trying to prove himself as good as his older brother, and who was gonna be the dominant of the two. I regret not putting that scene in, but it slowed the momentum of the film. Just in terms of the narrative structure, it didn’t stay in, but it did tell you something else. Maybe it'll be a DVD extra.
The King of the Travellers is a bit of a myth. There’s no number one Traveller fighter in Ireland. It doesn’t exist like that, because you’re never up against all of the best, the 10 best guys in the country. You’re only gonna be up against them if they happen to be in the rival families.
Big Joe was far older than many of the man he was challenging to a fight. What was the biggest age difference you saw in the fights?
There was a fight I didn’t include in the film, in the middle of Dublin, near Guinness’ brewery. It was an older man who fought against a man in his early 30s, and this man was in his mid or early 50s. It was a hell of a fight, and in fact the older man won. He’d been a boxer in his youth. Having got knocked down a few times, he then came back to win it. That was probably the biggest gap, nearly 15-20 years. The two oldest guys fighting were obviously Big Joe and Aney McGinley in the woods in the film. But they were of the same age, two grandfathers having it out.
Were those two anomalies or do most of these men fight that long if they can?
Nah. If you think about it, you’re talking normal regular people, they’re not professional athletes, they don’t have a network of support. For the most part they have to go out and make a living, they’ve got children. They’ve got a social life, so they’re not fighting on into forever. I think also, just the aggression which young men inevitably have to some extent makes its way into bare-knuckle fighting. It’s another aspect of why they’re fighting, to prove themselves in the context of the feuds. I mean, they’re proving themselves, but always against the same few families.
People talk about King of the Travellers—it doesn’t really exist. There’s no number one Traveller fighter in Ireland. It doesn’t exist like that, because you’re never up against all of the best, the 10 best guys in the country. You’re only gonna be up against them if they happen to be in the rival families. The King of the Travellers is a bit of a myth. You’re a kind of a king in your own clan if you’re the best guy; Big Joe, they refer to him as the King, but really they’re just talking about him as being their leader or their kind of icon in their family.
With so much footage, how did you finally decide you could stop and tell a cohesive story?
I had to stop out of desperation to get on with my life. I think I’d still be filming fights if I hadn’t found a way to stop. There were lots and lots of fights that had nothing to do with the feud that was going on, and I wouldn’t even look at the footage. At a certain point I was doing that and I just lost track of the reason I got into it in the first place.
It was really a stroke of luck when Michael [Quinn McDonagh] decided to challenge Big Paul [Joyce], because that gave me a potential end. It was a 10-year cycle in these two young men’s lives, their whole 20s. My focus was on the older brother [James] and inadvertently I was there long enough to see the younger brother [Michael] grow up from an 18-year-old, rosy-cheeked boy getting married to the father of a young boy who he holds in front of the camera and says, “Here is the next bare-knuckle champion.”
Again, one of those moments, one of those occasions where if you’re there long enough, something might just happen that’s interesting, and Michael coming out with his week-old boy and holding him in front of the camera was, for me, just an unbelievable moment.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)