Of Travelers, feuds and bare knuckles ...

The Quinn McDonaghs have been fighting and feuding with the Joyces for generations. RISE Films

Two men are driven to a quiet country lane close to Dundalk near the Irish border. Cars are used to block off access to the lane; less than 10 other people are present. They watch silently, as two men walk to a clear area, strip to the waist and prepare for a bare-knuckle fight.

James Quinn McDonagh and Paddy "The Lurcher" Joyce are there to represent their feuding Traveler clans. Although the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces are cousins, they are bitter enemies and have clashed for generations. The two families are at the heart of one of the longest and most violent bare-knuckle boxing feuds in Ireland and England.
-- From the press notes for "Knuckle," a documentary by Ian Palmer.


Ian Palmer hadn't planned to fall into the world of bare-knuckle boxing, had no idea that he would spend the better part of 12 years filming underground fights in Ireland and England and had never imagined that he would become a chronicler of an ongoing feud between families that stretched back generations.

He wasn't even completely sure he wanted to be a filmmaker at all. He had his heart set on writing screenplays.

But then he went to a wedding ...


In the mid-1990s, Palmer, an aspiring screenwriter who had recently returned to his native Ireland after a less-than-successful stint in Los Angeles, was introduced by a filmmaker friend to a family of Travelers. Perhaps better known to many by more derisive appellations -- "tinkers" or "gypsies," for example -- Travelers in Ireland today are reckoned to number around 22,000. They tend to live within their own familial confines, operating somewhat on the fringes of mainstream society. They have a reputation for secrecy, but Palmer found them to be welcoming and forthcoming.

It was exhilarating. It was as if someone had opened the door to a hidden kingdom. And I can tell you, I was completely hooked from day one. Not hooked necessarily on making a documentary, but just ... seduced by this thing.

-- Filmmaker Ian Palmer on the world of bare-knuckle boxing

"One of the daughters of this family was getting married to one of her cousins, which is normal," Palmer said. "They asked me if I would shoot some footage of the wedding. And so I went along, and the guy who was getting married, 18 years old, was Michael Quinn McDonagh. And his older brother, James Quinn McDonagh, was there at the wedding, and he was really the center of attention. He was very charismatic, good-looking; all the girls liked him, and all the boys looked up to him."

At that stage, Palmer had no idea that the elder brother was renowned as an outstanding bare-knuckle boxer. Palmer knew nothing about bare-knuckle boxing at all. That would soon change. A few weeks later, another of the brothers called him, told him James was preparing for a fight and suggested that perhaps Palmer would like to film it.

"I went along on the morning of the fight to where they all lived," Palmer said. "They lived in a bunch of houses together in a little housing group, and it was amazing. There were hundreds of men there and women and children hanging around, waiting to send their fighter off. Then the referees arrived. James was put in the referees' car, and I was told to follow. We followed in a car. It was a bit of a secret ride to a secret rendezvous.

"It was a quick fight -- six minutes. The other guy got destroyed by James. James was given his winnings -- 20,000 Irish pounds -- in a brown paper bag. He's immediately got the money in his fists, and the referees take their cut of 500 pounds each. I got in the car with him and his referees, and he was brought back to Dundalk, where his extended family had a lease on a pub, and they had a wild celebration at the pub. It was like they were crowning their king. The women were singing 'The Mighty Quinn' by Bob Dylan.

"It was exhilarating. It was as if someone had opened the door to a hidden kingdom. And I can tell you, I was completely hooked from day one. Not hooked necessarily on making a documentary, but just ... seduced by this thing."


Notwithstanding common perception, there is no ongoing battle to find the bare-knuckle "King of the Travelers." Although on occasion large sums of money can be involved, most of the time the only prize at stake is honor. Bare-knuckle fighting is a means of addressing family grievances, whose roots are lost in the mists of time.

For over a decade, beginning with that first fight, Palmer filmed the bare-knuckle feud between three families: the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces and the Nevins. They are all cousins. All three share the same great-great-grandparents. But over the years, as the family has splintered, feuds have developed and festered, and occasionally boiled over.

"It really is a rolling feud, which has just embedded itself in the way these families operate," Palmer said. "Any of them might be sent challenges by one of the others, for any specific reason. Maybe their paths crossed and they had a row, or somebody insulted one of the women. It could be quite serious -- there have been a couple of deaths in the feuds between the Joyces and the Quinn McDonaghs -- or it could be quite trivial. But because they have this history, these specific problems spark off something much bigger."

Each man selects his own referee from a neutral family, someone he trusts to make sure he is treated fairly.

"It's really in some ways a spin-off from 19th-century prizefighting," Palmer said. "There are no rounds. You fight until your opponent submits or until you knock him out. The referees will attempt to see that the fight is fair. There's no biting, no gouging, no kneeing, no head-butting. In my view, it's quite well-regulated by the referees. And the referees have to do that, because if they aren't seen to be fair they're in trouble. It's all about honor is what it comes down to. The referees are known in the Traveling world as fair men. And the fights are called fair fights."


For 12 years, Palmer filmed those fair fights between the three clans but, despite being absorbed in and enthralled by the culture, he had little idea what to do with the fight tapes, which gathered dust in a box in his spare room until the eventual passage of time allowed the narrative to reveal itself. The focus of the documentary became the Quinn McDonagh brothers and their journey from youth to middle age and how the bitterness of the families' feud, and the brothers' role in it, overshadowed every aspect of their lives.

The story began with the wedding of young Michael and ended with him fighting against big Paul Joyce. The two men had fought before, and Michael had lost -- he had disgraced himself, in fact, by being disqualified for biting. Ten years later, older and less hot-headed, he sought a rematch, and the movie's denouement is Michael's quest to restore his honor.

For Palmer, it has been a long and winding road, one that has taken him to Park City, Utah, where this week he will premier his finished product at the Sundance Film Festival in hopes of securing a distribution deal. As his project reaches an end, so too, temporarily, have the battles it documents. The clash between Michael Quinn McDonagh and Paul Joyce took place in 2007. Since then, the feud has simmered quietly in the background, and there have been no more fights.

But Palmer said that doesn't mean there won't be more in time.

"There can be periods of relative peace or lack of contact," he said. "But that doesn't mean it's all over. These things just feed into each other. It's not like there's a termination to this."

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.