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.
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.
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)