Forget the portrayal of fighting Travellers glorified by Guy Ritchie in Snatch; Knuckle is a documentary which follows rival clans the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces for 12 years as they regularly square up to bash each other’s faces in.
Supposedly the feud erupted in 1992 when an altercation outside a pub saw a member of the Joyce clan killed and one of the Quinn McDonaghs in jail for manslaughter. Since then, the grudge has been carried on in a series of organised bare-knuckle fights between clan members and seems less about resolving the original incident and more about personal pride and fighting because it’s something that’s always been done, like the dumbest traditions.
The result is unflinchingly brutal – thousands of pounds are bet on fights that can last over 2 hours as there are no round times; participants fight until one of them gives up or can no longer continue but the bouts are nevertheless strictly refereed by a third party. Bouts leave pugilists battered and always bloody. It’s a stark reminder of the reality of violence in a world which desensitised cinema audiences frequently take fighting for granted.
We spend most time with James Quinn McDonagh, the charismatic family champion, and his younger brother Michael who has a desperate need to redeem himself in his family’s eyes as he was once disqualified for biting his opponent.
James returns to fighting every few years despite professing after each fight that he wants the violence to end. Many of the fighters also claim that they’re not fighting for personal pride which is demonstrably untrue; many admit that it’s harder to retire than they first thought, especially when there’s money to be made.
It’s an interesting glimpse into a hitherto unexplored subculture. However, Knuckle is frustrating in that there never seems to be any resolution and the structure leaves it feeling unfocused. Men fight and a few months later their relatives come back to fight some more. According to the Travellers, the fights are supposed to resolve inter-clan conflicts but they seem to do the opposite, spurring on new generations of combatants to fight over something which most have forgotten and about which they no longer care.
As fight after fight is documented, the initial fascination and voyeuristic sadism gradually becomes depression that the cycle of violence will perpetuate and continue through successive generations. It’s enough to make you want to bang their heads together.