Review: Non-fiction: Knuckle by James Quinn McDonagh
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There's something comic as well as disturbing about bare-knuckle boxing among Travellers. Two paunchy guys with flabby arms flailing at each other, more handbags than killer punches. It is, as one observer put it, black comedy without the comedy.
Sometimes the opponents are fitter and more lethal looking. At the end of a fight there's blood everywhere, with split faces needing stitches. There are rules and referees, but it's dangerous and there's always the chance that someone will be killed by a bone on bone punch.
Knuckle, the documentary about the "tradition" among Irish Travellers on RTÉ last Sunday, was not for the squeamish. It showed bare-knuckle boxing as it is. But, perhaps because the film-maker was embedded for over 10 years with those involved, it was accepting rather than questioning.
Surprisingly, much more insight into this barbaric world comes from the autobiography of bare-knuckle champion James Quinn McDonagh, who featured in the documentary. The book has the same title but there is no connection between the two. And of the two, the book is more revealing about the phenomenon.
In the past it seems to have been a way of settling disputes between Traveller clans without all-out war. It's possible to argue that, even today, when disputes between families can erupt into battles with slash hooks and axe handles or even axes, it's still a better way of resolving differences.
That may still be a factor. But what this book makes clear is that most of the bare-knuckle fights these days are between just three clans in a cycle of violence that has been going around now for more than 20 years. There's big money involved, as crowds of fired-up supporters gather at secret locations down country lanes to watch the mayhem and record it on video for posterity -- and for sale in the pubs.
The three clans are the Nevins, the Joyces and the Quinns -- and they're all related to each other, which underlines how stupid the whole business is. Slights are carried over from one fight to the next. Video challenges are circulated. Eventually the tension reaches a point where another bout becomes inevitable. The bets on the outcome can mean a money pot as much as €40,000.
The rules are simple. There are no rounds, so no breaks. No gloves are worn and no biting is allowed. They fight until one man collapses or gives in. Occasionally the two referees, one from each clan, will agree a draw. It's bloody and brutal, with the crowd shouting encouragement.
James Quinn McDonagh, the author, is the champion of the Quinns. Born in 1967, near the end of the era when Travellers still lived in horse-drawn wagons, he grew up around Mullingar. He didn't go to school regularly, but did go to a boxing club.
He had a talent for boxing, despite being too tall and thin. But before he could progress in competitions, his family moved to England. He was 16, unable to read or write. Like most Travellers he married young. He got work on the buildings in London and was so popular with the boss that, despite being illiterate, he ended up as a foreman in charge of several sites. For a time it might have been possible for him to live a settled life.
He had already come into contact with bare-knuckle boxing at this stage. But it was a brawl between clans outside a pub in London 20 years ago, during which a man was killed, that changed everything and started the feuding and the bare-knuckle fights between the three groups. Quinn fled with his family. He's been living as a Traveller ever since, mainly on sites in Navan and Dublin, but has now moved abroad. The violence has continued over the years. Just weeks ago, a brawl between two of the clans outside a pub in Dublin led to shots being fired and a pipebomb being planted. This latest outbreak of feuding is said to be over €30,000 in prize money from another bare-knuckle fight.
James Quinn claims to be retired. He says he now regrets bare-knuckle boxing over the years, that the feuds are pointless and that while he still values Traveller culture he thinks the lifestyle is coming to an end.
The more interesting part of the book is not the bloody knuckle bouts but what goes on between them. Perhaps without meaning to, Quinn's book gives a window into the separate world of the Travellers. In passing he reveals details of the scams they get up to, the thin tarmac on driveways, the blank DVDs sold at markets as newly released films, the abandoned cars put back on the road.
What he reveals is a way of life that, in today's world, is as alien and pointless as the bare-knuckle boxing that is still a part of it. It's an illuminating book, but sad reading.