As a westerner I always wondered whether the depiction of “pikeys” in Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch had any semblance of truth in them, or were they exaggerated caricatures. Thanks to Ian Palmer‘s documentary Knuckle I got my answer to elements I didn’t even think to question. Oh, and by the way the answer is no – Brad Pitt and his fellow fast-talk-mumbling-slang spitters in love with caravans and bare-knuckle fighting are not caricatures. Not completely, anyway.

In Ireland there is a group of families that have been having it out with each other for no less than at least three generations. Something started the rivalry, nobody really knows what, but everyone can point to the last thing the other family did to tick them off. Two of the families are the McDonaghs and the Joyces and while they’re not the only two families involved within the film, they are the meat of the story, and even with the events of the documentary occurring over a ten year span it is a cut of meat with very little fat.

For most of the picture we get a glimpse into the ongoing rivalry between the two families from the point of view of the McDonagh family’s champion boxer James. He isn’t a professional boxer, though he along with most of the men in both families has been trained for ring boxing; he’s a bare-knuckle “champion” so to speak. The way the two families (along with the other “travelers” as the families are referred to) keep from literally killing each other is to square off in no-glove fights, objectively refereed by members of families that are not involved in the fight. Ever since James started fighting and representing his family name he’s never lost. He also would rather not feel compelled to do it.

James may be the individual the camera latches on to, but the real story of the film is the broader picture overview of the long-running rivalries themselves and how they seem to never settle. There are large, years-long gaps in the movie where nothing of significance seemed to happen; because nothing of any significance really did happen. The two families the film focuses on (McDonaghs and Joyces) weren’t fighting each other. Maybe they weren’t getting along, but they weren’t fighting. Then, someone decides to record a video about how they’re superior, and it starts up again.

Did I mention that each of the families are also in fact related?

For the documentary being represented (or so I thought) as insight into a world of unsanctioned bare-knuckle fighting I expected to see something more brutal, physically speaking. In fact, the most brutal aspect about Knuckle is getting a glimpse into a reality where viewpoints and attitudes get shaped almost from birth. The hatred between these families has been going on for so long that it’s been just about engrained into the DNA to dislike members of the other family as you would licorice (if you don’t like licorice). It’s almost as if you have no choice in the matter. Sure, you can withstand them well enough, but the bad taste you have in your mouth will always be there and the only way to wash out the flavor is to put up your dukes and start swinging until someone gets knocked out, says quit, or calls a draw. It can be minutes, it could be hours, but eventually it will be win, lose or draw and everything afterwards will be hunky-dory on the surface until the taunting ensues months later. At least licorice won’t talk back when you tell it you don’t like it.


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