A Changing Subject-Position for Travellers in Knuckle (Ian Palmer, 2011)

By Leahy, Eileen | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

A Changing Subject-Position for Travellers in Knuckle (Ian Palmer, 2011)


Leahy, Eileen, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Irish Travellers are an indigenous minority group that have been marginalised and excluded in Irish society (Bancroft 2005: 42-44). Their prominence in moving image production belies their marginal status in Irish society and it can be argued that Travellers have taken on a symbolic role for the general public in Irish culture. Travellers have featured in Irish cinema throughout its history in both indigenous and diasporic productions, such as the British productions No Resting Place (Paul Rotha, 1951) or Snatch (Guy Ritchie, 2000). Travellers in indigenous Irish cinema often signify Ireland's 'Other', denoting an outsider status and issues of exclusion, and at other times creating a microcosm of Irish society through the depiction of Travellers' rich heritage and tradition under threat. Irish films such as Traveller (Joe Comerford, 1981), Into the West (Mike Newell, 1992) and Trojan Eddie (Gillies MacKinnon, 1996) construct Travellers as romantic figures linked to Ireland's pre-modern past, representing Ireland's confused post-colonial identity and indicating an alternative to official discourses of Ireland and Irishness (McLoone 2000: 134-5, Barton 2004: 185-6, Pettitt 2000: 129, 272).

Ian Palmer's 2011 documentary Knuckle is interesting because it challenges this subject position of Travellers in Irish film. The film was shot over twelve years as Palmer immersed himself in the "underground" scene of bare-knuckle boxing among a particular Traveller family, the McDonaghs, and the film presents the viewer with an insider view of this secret world. (1) However, the Travellers themselves have a different perception of the film and the filmmaker's relationship to his documentary subjects. According to Palmer (Interview), "they saw it as their film", a perception repeated throughout the film as they comment on the documentary being made. A fuller understanding of this changing subject position can come from an understanding of the context in which the fights were filmed.

Film and video have been an integral element in Traveller bare-knuckle fights in recent years, since technological developments in film equipment allowed the practice of filming fights to become widespread. Bare-knuckle boxing is part of a Traveller tradition of settling disputes through a system known as "Fair Play". This system of conflict resolution is important in Traveller communities because of mistrust of the police and of the criminal justice system, which operate within a social order that discriminates against Travellers. In the Fair Play system two opponents, representing both sides of a dispute, settle the disagreement through a structured fight, under strict rules and with the supervision of disinterested third-party referees. The outcome of the fight is binding on all involved, and the dispute is settled in favour of whichever side the victor represents. Usually the disputes are between families, and the fighting is not just about a conflict or dispute, but often a matter of preserving the family's honour.

Filming serves important functions in the Fair Play system, in that a record of the fight is available so that outcomes cannot be disputed. Videotapes from the early days of filming fights, and latterly DVDs, are watched in groups after a fight has taken place. Usually the family or group involved in the feud are not able to attend the fight, for reasons of security, because of the underground nature of the fighting and because the Fair Play rules don't allow the group to attend in order to prevent more widespread fighting from developing. The filmed footage of the fight serves as proof that the dispute was settled through the fair fight system. As filming of fights developed, the various groups involved in a dispute would each have their own "videoman" recording the contest. These recordings are watched by all involved and often have a life of their own after the dispute has been settled. They can be viewed as sporting contests and used by fighters as part of their training for a bare-knuckle contest. …

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