Below filmmaker Ian Palmer shares a scene from his documentary “Knuckle.” The film spans 12 years during which Palmer followed members of a nomadic ethnic group who when conflicts arise, settle their arguments through ritualized, bare-knuckle fighting. It opens at the Cinema Village in NYC today and is currently available on VOD.
This scene is from the start of my documentary “Knuckle.” In it two men are sparring on a beach in Dublin watched by a number of others.
The two men are brothers although you don’t learn this until a little later in the film and the watching men are their father, older brother and cousins. After a few clashes the older of the men breaks off from the sparring saying, “Caught me lovely.” His younger brother has just clipped him with a clean shot to the head. We see the younger boxer silhouetted against the sea and sky and then cut to the older man leading his cousins over to a car parked nearby. It’s an unmarked police car and the officers inside have been watching the activity for a while. The man is relaxed and explains to the police that they are training for a fight which is to be held in London in a few weeks time and that the guy on the beach with the video camera has been following them “on and off for the last 10 years” and is making a documentary about them.
What is remarkable about the exchange is how open and relaxed the man is with the police. In fact just before he went over to the car one of his cousins whispered to him the word “shades” – you can just about hear it on the soundtrack. “Shades” is an Irish Traveler word for police and it was a warning to the man to be careful what he said. Still he feels confident enough to volunteer a little information to the police about the upcoming fight. The man’s name is James Quinn McDonagh.
I had shot another training session with them on the beach a few days earlier and the wind gusting in off the sea meant the sound quality was poor. So when I heard they were going back for another beach session a few days later I put a radio mic on James Quinn and as a result managed to record his conversation with the police from about a distance of 50 metres which ends the scene and sets up the film. It also gives an early sense of the relaxed but calculating character of the man who turns out to be the main figure in the documentary.
This scene was filmed in Summer 2007. I had first met Michael and James Quinn McDonagh at Michael’s wedding in 1997 nearly 10 years earlier when Michael was just 18 years old. I ended up filming the brothers and their family throughout the next decade following their feuds and recording their bare knuckle fights with two rival Traveler families – just as James had politely explained to the police on the beach.
People often ask me how I managed to get inside this secretive, closed off world of Irish Travellers. In fact it was not as difficult as you might expect. I got to know the Quinn McDonaghs in 1996 and had planned to make a very different film with them about their family origins and history. This was well before I found out about the feuding and fighting that their clan was involved in.
So they had got to know me quite well by the time I was invited to go to Michael’s wedding and to bring along my video camera. I got on well with James Quinn at the wedding and soon after I was invited to video him training for a upcoming fight, a bare knuckle fight against a cousin from a rival Traveler clan called the Joyces. They invited me into this world and I was curious and accepted with no idea where it would lead me to.
After I filmed the first fight I was hooked and wanted to make a film about James Quinn McDonagh and follow his career as a bare knuckle fighter over 3 or 4 years. But I could never get the project commissioned and funded. So with no deadline by which to finish and deliver a film I simply continued shooting by myself with the help of a few film-maker friends.
But the lack of a commission proved to be a benefit to the scale of the film in the long run. What had started as a study of one man’s fighting career evolved into a film shot over 12 years about the changing relationship between two brothers, about sibling rivalry and the need for personal redemption and also about the effects that the feuding had on a whole generation of Irish Travelers.