Fantastic Fest: Bare-Knuckle Champ James Quinn McDonagh Talks Knuckle — and Its Planned HBO Series

Within the insular Traveller community in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom, among clans that are closely related by marriage and birth, conflicts are solved through ritualized bare-knuckle fights buoyed by blood pride and machismo. Think Brad Pitt in Snatch and you get the lighter side of the boxing tradition, but in real life, as documentarian Ian Palmer discovered as he filmed one clan's champions over the course of 12 years, there's a dark and tragic nature to the custom that drives the culture.

Knuckle combines Palmer's personal musings as an outside observer with interviews and fight footage of the bare-knuckle bouts, carefully planned and refereed between families to solve disputes - or, as it sometimes appears, to confront perceived slights. His lens focuses on James Quinn McDonagh, a clan champion who reluctantly steps up to fight for his family name despite growing philosophical objections to the practice. Speaking with Movieline at Fantastic Fest, where Knuckle screened, Quinn McDonagh lamented what could have been if the tradition had stopped years ago. "It could have avoided a lot of tragedies, a lot of trouble, a lot of prison times," he said. "A lot of things could have been avoided if we sat around a table and talked. Hopefully in the future that will happen."

Read on for more with director Ian Palmer and bare-knuckle champion James Quinn McDonagh.

Knuckle is about so much more than just bare-knuckle boxing, it's about this entire tradition that occurs in this specific place and specific community in the world. How did you first find your way in and know you had a story to film?

Ian Palmer: I didn't really find the story...

James Quinn McDonagh: The story found him!

Palmer: Yeah -- I didn't find a story, I found people. I had no idea where the story was going, but I met the woman James's brother was going to marry, Jacqueline, one of his cousins, and her family asked me to go on to the wedding. So I met Michael and James at the wedding reception - two guys who I found interesting. And James at that time was a good bit older than Michael, Michael was only 18 years old and James was the big brother. There was something there fairly quickly. James was fighting; they asked me along. So immediately I had something that I was interested in following, but people rather than the fight scene. I was more interested in James, his brother, the families, and why the hell they were fighting these other families. Where it was going to go as a story, I had no idea - no more than James knew back then in 1997 where his life was going to go. It was about life that was going to happen in the future.

James, take me through this fighting tradition, and how you first learned about it growing up.

McDonagh: In general, the Irish traveling community would settle their arguments or disputes with bare-knuckle fighting, as you've seen in the film. If we have an argument or a fight with the Joyces or the Nevins, one of our guys would be put up to defend the family name. Going back a few years ago there would be someone before me, and when my turn came, my calling, I had to answer that call and take the lead role in defending the family name. I've done it for 12 years, and my brother Michael has done it. It's basically a tradition among travelers to have a guy that can stand up, knuckle-wise, and defend the family name.

What's your earliest recollection as a child of seeing this tradition in action, coming to understand how all of this worked and why people did it?

McDonagh: Well, the first bare-knuckle fight I'd ever seen was in 1990, between one of the characters in the movie, the guy who fought Big Joe, Aney McGinley. He fought a guy called Dan Rooney who was the season's champion at the time. I was hooked from that minute. Previously I'd done a lot of boxing in the ring, training as a kid growing up. And it was three years later when I had my first fight, my first street fight, with Ditsy Nevin, and it just took its own road from there.

Training physically is one thing, but the sense of honor that drives this tradition is the most striking part of it all.

McDonagh: Honor -- it all goes back down to who you are. What breed you're from, what clan in Ireland you are.

Palmer: It's all about defending your family name. I mean, it's also about two men, maybe young men, wanting to prove themselves and how good they are as individuals. But it's always in the context of how good you are as a Quinn McDonagh or as a Joyce; it's about what breed you're from and representing that family when and if you're called upon. And not every man is going to be. It's only going to be a select few, for whatever reason. It may be because they were good in the ring, or it may be because they're the son of a father.

McDonagh: I've seen guys fight in Dublin where guys fight a sister's husband just because it's a different name. He's fought his brother-in-law. He's fought his first cousin. He's fought his uncle. Just because this guy's got his mother's name and that guy's got his dad's name. It comes down to the honor of your surname, and the pride of that, and keeping it alive and keeping it above other clans and other breeds of Traveller.

Palmer: Let's say we were brother and sister; you married someone he was feuding with. Your son would be one of them, right? So he'd be potentially an enemy for his son to fight.

McDonagh: My sister's kids would fight with my kids because they're a Joyce.

How do you feel about that?

McDonagh: Terrible. Terrible. It's not right, it's wrong. I'm totally against it but if I go against it openly I'm going to [dishonor] my family. So as much as I hate it, it's acceptable in my community.

How does your family feel about you voicing your concerns in talking to me now, for instance?

McDonagh: You know, this all started with Ian, talking with Ian. When we accepted Ian into the family when he started the documentary, we opened up to Ian and I opened up to him. I was the first person who started trusting Ian. Then my brother Michael, then it took a good few years for the girls to start trusting Ian. He was a nice guy, he used his own bit of charm to get around every one of us, and you know, we talked about me talking to the media now and I don't mind doing it. I decided there are things in Knuckle that need to be told, and I don't mind talking about it.

In the film there are female members of the family who voice their opposition to the fighting tradition, who think it should stop.

McDonagh: Yeah, the females, the women don't want to do it. But in the traveler's tradition and traveler culture, in this business of bare-knuckle boxing the women take a backseat. They can voice their opinions but the guys don't listen to them, you know? The guys don't listen because it's all macho; the guys want to be seen as the leaders of those clans. Years ago, they probably should have listened to some of the older women and this would have never happened. It could have avoided a lot of tragedies, a lot of trouble, a lot of prison times... a lot of things could have been avoided if we sat around a table and talked. Hopefully in the future that will happen.

You seem to have moved past this frame of mind yourself.

McDonagh: I've seen the other side of the fence, and it's greener. It's better. I didn't realize I had a choice in saying, "No, I don't want to fight," but I did, and I do. I should have said that years ago. Looking back on it I should have done it and I wanted to do it, but I would have let a lot of people down by not going out and defending my family name.

Palmer: The thing is, if James had said no there would have been someone in his place.

McDonagh: There would have been somebody in my place and I would have gone back to doing it because if they didn't beat the guy, we would have been down -- they would have been on top of this pedestal and it would be our decision to go and knock them off it. I'd have come back in, and trained on that, so it's a never-ending circle. The only thing that stops you, really, is age. The older you get, you just have to move on and let someone younger take your place.

Palmer: Then again, in the film there are two guys who are heading toward 60 [who are fighting]...

And that's the moment when you admit, within the film, that you began to have doubts about what you were doing filming these fights.

Palmer: That was an eye-opener, yeah. At that time there were a few fights I thought were particularly violent, that impacted on me.

McDonagh: Dangerous.

Palmer: When the two old guys fight that's Big Joe and Aney McGinley, both heading towards 60, James was the referee. We were up in the middle of the forest, there was a track going up, and it wasn't that I was scared at that time, although it was a very tense time. There were a lot of people at that fight, which was not normal. Normally there's very few people there. But all of the families that are represented in this film were there, within this forest clearing, screaming at each other, with James in the middle with one or two other guys to keep the peace -- keep the peace between the families to let the fighters get on with what they were doing. But that wasn't the reason I was put off. I was just weary of the whole thing. I was filming, and filming, and filming, and didn't know when I was going to find an end or a way to finish the film, I had no money. And also I felt that when I looked at footage from that, here I was getting a kick out of it with the camera. I wasn't finding a way to finish the film, I was finding a way to go to the fights. So there was kind of a self-realization there that I could be heading in the wrong direction, and I put it away for a bit and only came up when Michael was getting ready to do himself justice for what he'd done ten years before.

The idea of getting enjoyment out of watching these fights...

Palmer: By that stage it was starting to pop up on the Internet, too. When I met James first there were VHS tapes knocking around.

McDonagh: Travellers didn't know what Facebook or YouTube was.

Palmer: The VHS tapes would be improved upon, eventually there were DVDs, and now they're posting stuff on YouTube.

How do you think that perverts the original intent?

Palmer: It complicates it, for sure. I've had it said to me in Ireland that fair fights as they happen now are not the real thing. But there still are families who are feuding, going out, having referees organize a fair fight between men of the families to sort out some kind of problem. On the other hand, people are really heavily training, there's money...

McDonagh: It's a business now. When I was doing that it wasn't a business... nowadays what's happened, and what's made me stop is I've seen a different trend. It's fueling the feuds.

On a lighter note...

Palmer: Love the weather! [Laughs]

Knuckle was optioned to be remade into an HBO series [by David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride]. How much do you think they'll stay true to the spirit of the film?

Palmer: Time's the judge on that one. It wouldn't be easy, but it's a story which is full of drama, there's family histories, there's so much to explore in a fictionalization. It's a really meaty story for actors, lots and lots of strands coming together.

Are you worried at all that an adaptation might go astray from what Knuckle is all about?

Palmer: You know, if I was getting involved in the fictionalization side of it with the point of view that it had to be exactly as it is in the film, it just wouldn't happen. There's got to be some kind of creative freedom to use the film, to use the secret, hidden world that I've presented, as a template for dramatic presentation of families who are feuding in a particular way. It's got to have its own life at a certain point.

Who do you think should, or could, play you if your story was dramatized onscreen?

McDonagh: That's a good question! Who could play me? I don't know.

Palmer: George Clooney?

McDonagh: I doubt that. [Laughs] I don't know, I like Vin Diesel, he's a good character.

Palmer: Brad Pitt?

McDonagh: Yeah, he's brilliant at the Irish accent.

How did you like his depiction of traveler culture in Snatch?

McDonagh: Brilliant, a brilliant portrayal. There are a lot of similarities in Snatch. You see Brad in the movie straight after his fight, smoking a fag; you see Michael after his fight, fag in his mouth, laughing about it! Same as Brad does. Yeah, he's good.

But Vin Diesel's your pick?

McDonagh: Vin Diesel, yeah.