Ian Palmer started filming Knuckle likely for the same reason one would want to see it: the primal spectacle of men fighting — without gloves, rounds or weight classes, until one man is knocked out or concedes. He was hired to film a wedding and met someone at the event who invited him to shoot a bare-knuckle fight between members of rival Irish Traveller families. That account opens the film, and it's a riveting and brutally short affair in which James Quinn McDonagh repeatedly bashes and bloodies the face of Patrick Joyce in a fight held on a secluded muddy road. With the victory comes some money, pride, some trash-talking and inevitably more challengers.
Travellers is a term for a group of itinerant laborers. They've traditionally stuck to certain professions, most recently construction, as they move through the U.K., maintaining tight family networks and heated rivalries. Much of Knuckle focuses on a long-term feud between the Quinn McDonaghs and Joyces, and fights between numerous members from several generations of each clan are spread over a dozen years (as well as fights with other familes). But for all the talk of vengeance and settling matters, no single bout resolves much of anything, and each event is followed by some taunt or slight by someone in the winning family to someone in the losing family, if not calling the entire family "dirt" (one of the kinder insults).
Palmer and many of the fighters (almost always the winners) say they have grown tired of the violence and want it to end. But as is amply clear, the men distinguish themselves by fierce senses of family honor and by personal refusals ever to back down from a challenge. Even if everyone wants peace, no one wants to be perceived as a coward. So the fights continue, and so does the thrill/repulsion dynamic that drives the film. James Quinn McDonagh is sort of the hero. He's one of the best fighters and also one of the most reasonable men Palmer follows. He may have the courage to stop fighting, but it would take something else to stop the feud. — Will Coviello