I don’t even know where to start. When I began watching Knuckle, I thought it would be a pretty interesting look at how a bunch of Irish families spar with each other. That’s certainly what the documentary is about, but as it continued, I couldn’t help but be repulsed by the irrational violence on display. To make matters worse, while looking up the film after the fact, I came across the news that one of the main players was charged with, and admitted to, beating his wife to death in September, 2012. If you watch Knuckle (it’s currently streaming on Netflix), I bet you’ll come away with a damn good reason why.
“It’s gone down through the families. It’s tradition.”
Directed by Ian Palmer, Knuckle concerns itself with two warring families consumed – as far as I can tell – by endless violence in an attempt to one-up each other and claim superiority over everyone else who dares say otherwise. This is troubling enough, as I can’t for the life of me see how anything positive could ever come from this lifestyle, but what I found while researching the film makes me sit back and reflect even more.
The man pictured above is Michael Quinn McDonagh, and Knuckle opens with him training in a boxing ring, repeatedly punching away as a relative encourages him on. Soon after, Michael is shown in a bare-knuckle brawl with a member of the Joyce family. While the two families are related by blood, the feud has made them enemies beyond all reason. Another Quinn McDonagh, James, is prominently featured throughout, but Michael is all I can think about right now.
A year after Knuckle was released, Michael was charged with the murder of his wife, Jacqueline. The same man who was called a psychopath in the film apparently beat her to death in their own home and later turned himself in. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill anybody,” he said, but I’d say that statement was born wholly from hindsight. Since violence is all he’s ever known, it follows that he would use his fists to tear down any obstacle in his way. It just so happened that this time, the obstacle was his wife. Coming from a family hell-bent on pummeling their way through life, it’s quite frankly amazing that even more deaths haven’t occurred over the years. It’s disgusting, and it turns my stomach to watch these people try to justify their actions by claiming tradition or that the other side won’t let it go. It’s a bunch of bullshit, but whatever lets you sleep at night, right?
About halfway through, it became apparent that hardly any of the women were being shown at all. I made the guess inside my head that if they were, they’d want all the fighting to come to an end. Shortly after that thought, sure enough, the first woman spoke up.
Every woman who spoke on camera said they wanted it to stop, which is great. In these kinds of situations, women tend to have a much better grasp of reality, or at least how reality should be. None of that matters, though, if they sit around and do nothing while their asshole other halves beat themselves senseless out on a country road somewhere because, well…because fuck that other guy! I’m just frustrated that they weren’t able to affect any change before it resulted in a fatality, although, it could very well be the case that they never spoke up out of fear for their own lives. I have no idea. All I know is that the dynamics of this group of people are horrendously broken.
I was mostly raised by women, so I never had to deal with this macho bullshit growing up. As such, I don’t understand anything about the attitudes on display in Knuckle. These people think that the measure of a man comes from punching the shit out of someone until they either give up or lay unconscious, crumpled on the floor. Maybe they needed more of a feminine influence growing up, or maybe they were all destined to grow up unconscionable douches no matter what. It’s up in the air from where I’m sitting.
Either way, just imagine if the bulk of society behaved like the men in these clans do. I don’t even know if laws would be able to be upheld. Sure, they put on a facade of “fair play,” as they call it, when it comes to bare-knuckle brawls, but what does not biting or grappling really have to do with anything in the bigger picture? Nothing, that’s what. They can claim all day long that fighting it out is the safest solution to their problems, but when a culture of violence such as theirs continues to promote the swinging of fists as grievance counselors, it impacts people outside the so-called “fair play” arena as well as inside. Is one accidental murder-by-beat-down enough to herald change? Obviously not, or this whole thing would have stopped in ’92, when two family members were killed outside a bar in a scuffle. In my opinion, nothing short of locking every single one of them up will do a damn thing.
As a documentary, Knuckle is affecting and well-made. It elicits strong emotion, which is one of the benchmarks of good cinema, whether it be head-turning disgust or wild applause. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s the former. I think everyone should see it at least once, though, because its subject matter isn’t limited to the people on-screen. This kind of violence can be seen everywhere to varying degrees, and it’s a huge problem that holds us back as a species. Maybe one day, we’ll quit acting like the apes we are and start behaving more like the intelligent, compassionate human beings we all have the potential to become. That’s my hope, at least.