Saturday 27 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'Knuckle' shines a light on society's darker reaches

Two puffy-faced, pot-bellied grandfathers brawl in a remote midlands wood and, almost unwittingly, you find yourself taking sides. Ian Palmer's RTE TV documentary 'Knuckle' did many uncomfortable things, but maybe none more so than un-glue the sanctimony of the viewer.

If revulsion never quite left the room last Sunday night, it still lost a standing count to the voyeur most of us hoard within.

The 'fight' between Big Joe Joyce and Aney McGinley was a pathetic, lurching exchange settled -- it seemed -- by Joyce biting McGinley's ear.

Palmer's remarkable exploration of the bare-knuckle fighting culture still embraced by Travellers followed a 12-year journey in the company of maybe the one authentic boxer we got to see on camera, James Quinn-McDonagh. The footage was disturbingly graphic, routinely punctuated by the sickly sound of a naked fist snapping the bridge of a fighter's nose.

In the Traveller culture, respect comes from a willingness to fight to the edge of consciousness. Hence one of Quinn-McDonagh's more bloodied opponents, subsequently described by his own family as "a bit simple", continuously picked himself off the ground to face yet another five-knuckle rosary. He was glaringly over-matched, but -- unless knocked unconscious -- only he could decide when the fight concluded.

So 'Knuckle' was horrible in parts, peering into a world of vicious, inter-generational feud and seemingly mindless devotion to what passed for family honour. At times, small boys could be seen being carried along on the ugly tide to -- you could only surmise -- inevitably violent futures of their own.

Palmer's documentary drew the ire of callers to Monday's 'Liveline' and the disapproval of Pavee Point, the Travellers' Representative Group.

And, given the irrational, eye-popping video messages flying between families to preface many of the fights, it was easy to sympathise with a view that 'Knuckle' might have an incendiary effect on the people feuding.

Yet the programme offered no faux moralising of the content. It neither editorialised nor took sides. Its strength was its emotional neutrality, the sense of a benign light being shone on a way of life that most of us struggle to reconcile with civilised society.


I found myself liking Quinn-McDonagh, the unbeaten so-called 'King of the Travellers' if only because -- on some subliminal level -- he seemed to distance himself from all the hate and bloodlust. He fought, primarily, for money. And, with pots rising to ¿70,000 and more, that didn't seem too unhinged a motive for someone with technique and a punch.

I found myself liking the women too. They were uniformly camera-shy and seemed saddened that their men folk felt compelled to bring 20 and 30-year-old spites to such barbaric expression.

In conflict resolution, the Travellers were of another world. If someone wronged them, recompense was drawn with violence. In place of legal correspondence, they preferred to use their fists.

So 'Knuckle' introduced us to a way of life populated, just like any other, by a mix of good people, bad people, opportunists, victims, leaders and clowns. Would we have been better served by not seeing that? I doubt it.

Some of Ireland's finest amateur boxers come from the Travelling community and, routinely, represent this country with dignity and honour. In Beijing four years ago, I sat for coffee one morning with John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce, two settled Travellers from Mullingar whose families have never been especially friendly.

They always avoided sparring with one another when in the High Performance gym and tended to keep an invisible distance outside the ring. Yet, Nevin and Joyce sat together, speaking of the very same dreams and frustrations.

When Nevin qualified for the 2008 Games, his family tried booking a function room in Mullingar to celebrate. "Tried 20 or 30 different places," he recalled, but no one would take the booking. Eventually, they got a room somewhere in Monaghan.

Nevin wasn't bitter. He said he understood how too many Travellers' gatherings ended in chaos and expressed a hope that the sight of himself and Joyce wearing Irish singlets in China might soften any prejudice in the minds of the settled community.

Of course, it could be argued that 'Knuckle' has now done precisely the opposite of that.

Some of the Monday callers to 'Liveline' suggested as much. Those seen fighting in Palmer's documentary were all but dismissed as human magpies.

Yet, there was a fundamental honour to so many of the men filmed centre-stage in 'Knuckle'. However skewed their reasons for fighting (and some looked positively terrified), the culture was to -- at all costs -- defend the family. Those beaten returned to warm embraces at the halting site. There was no shame in losing. Only in not trying to win.

Yes, it was visually shocking and, yes, the sight of two grandfathers trying to punch one another in front of a baying crowd made the stomach queasy. But they looked more foolish than dangerous.

A country is all of its people, not simply those we recognise ourselves in. 'Knuckle' reminded us of that.

Public service broadcasting as it was intended.


THOUGHT FOR THE WEEKEND: It's maybe 35 years since we last set foot in our old alma mater, but this column is unabashed in its prejudiced hope that Nenagh CBS finally wins the Harty Cup by beating Waterford Colleges in Cashel tomorrow.

Even in our day of flat caps, black Rudge bikes and comely maidens, Nenagh always had call on special hurlers. Just maybe not enough of them. This team looks ready to break the mould.

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