KNUCKLE follows the fighting life of James Quinn McDonagh, unbeaten against his opponents, a fight organiser and hero to his family.
At the end of his boxing career, James trains the younger men of his family and referees fights for other Traveller families.
His younger brother Michael is in intense training for a rematch against Big Paul, a top fighter from the Joyce family.
Michael hopes to mend his reputation after being disqualified in a previous fight against rival Paul Joyce nine years before in 1999.
The generational tale documents the brothers’ journey from youth to early middle age through the significant moments in their lives, marriage and the birth of their children, and shows how the bitterness of their clan’s feud continues to overshadow everything else.
If you’re squeamish, this is probably not the film for you.
Shot by first-time director Ian Palmer in an observational style, this is a hard-edged portrait of Traveller male culture and explores the bonds of loyalty, the need for revenge and the pressures to fight for the honour of your family name.
It’s a difficult film to wrap your head around. Long-standing family feuds and pride are proffered as the reasons for the fights, but the presence and welcome given to Palmer’s observation of this ultimately illegal world raises other questions.
For instance, were the fighters courting publicity? Palmer says he briefly felt that way, but as he came to know James better he realised that their activity could be viewed at face value. The pair went to the Sundance Film Festival together in 2011 and they remain good friends.
So, how did a south-Dublin middle-class anthropology graduate react to the nature of the violence he was capturing?
“For quite a long time it didn’t have any effect,” he says, speaking to the Irish Echo by phone.
“Partly, I’m into boxing. Otherwise I think it’s something to do with having a camera and looking through a lens and when you’re there your whole concentration is on a technical thing, trying to make sure it’s in frame. It’s very rough and ready shooting in that environment.
“You would get blood spattered on the lens or on my clothes and a few times I got a mistimed punch. But really you are concentrating, [because] you have a job to do.”
Palmer was introduced to this hidden world by chance, after being asked to film a McDonagh wedding in Navan, Co Meath.
He is keen to stress that he never was ‘a wedding videographer’, a description of him that has appeared in other interviews.
The groom’s brothers were James and Paddy McDonagh, two men Palmer would come to know very well over the next 12 years.
When Paddy invited Palmer to film James’s fight, his obsession began. Palmer describes his exposure to that first fight as “very immediate”.
The fights are brutal, gripping and unnerving. It’s a wonder that Palmer could stand 12 years of it. His was an anthropological approach.
“I just felt I was getting access to something – all these hidden things. And in some ways if you’re given access it’s important to deal with it in an open and frank way.”
He is unapologetic about the occasional rush he got while filming and admits – “I hold up my hands” – to feeling excited, even now, as he watches some of the footage again and again.
The Big Joe fight, seen in the documentary, is a scene that recalls for Palmer a time of difficulty and self-doubt.
He believes it could have been a potentially deadly clash as there were people present who should not have been there.
The presence of other cameras and smartphones at the fight made the director question his own motives.
“When I started out I was able to persuade myself, maybe erroneously, that I was documenting this hidden world and that it was an anthropological project,” he says.
“By the time the Big Joe fight, which was 2006, had happened I had being filming for nine years and I had really lost the thread of making and delivering a film.”
Whatever fleeting doubts he had, he overcame.
The film was finished and, with the help of film editor Ollie Huddleston and producer Teddy Leifer, released. How Huddleston edited 12 years to 93 minutes is mind-boggling.
After 12 years of filming, does Palmer have a greater insight into why the men continue the endless brawling?
“It’s very deep rooted what they are doing and it is for family rivalry,” he says. “None of these fights is ever going to bring it to an end and they know that themselves. It’s just going to sort it out for a month or for a year, or between two individuals forever – but never between the clans forever.”