Friday 21 September 2018

'ChiLdren learn to fight before they can ride a bike ... I want to stop that'

FIGHTER: The star of Knuckle James Quinn McDonagh now wants bareknuckle boxing to become a legitimate sport

BAREKNUCKLE boxer James Quinn McDonagh is scarred from fights and bullets.

The Traveller was once the undisputed champion of bare-knuckle boxing, and featured in the documentary Knuckle.

But now he wants to rally against a world where "kids learn how to fight before they learn how to ride a bike".

As a young man James Quinn McDonagh knew nothing other than fighting for family pride and honour.

But this Travellers' tradition has divided opinion.

A bloody, ruthless sport, there are few rules other than 'no gloves, no biting, no rests'.

The last man standing takes home the money and, crucially, retains the family honour.

There are those who want to see it banned and are keen to brush off their links with the 'animalistic' behaviour.

Others believe it should remain as it is -- an old-fashioned settling of scores.


But former champion James (44) wants to legitimise it into an official sport.

"Pride is something that is inbuilt in Traveller DNA and every male worth his salt will want to stand up to defend their name," James explained.

"I started out in a local boxing club in Darndale and I moved on from that.

"Bareknuckle boxing was pushed on me. It wasn't as if I was forced to do it, but I felt I had to -- there was no one else to take up the challenges.

"It is all about pride. Pride before money, always."

James was in his early 20s when he started to accept challenges and he even had a promising career as a professional boxer.

But his true love was always the traditional fights for honour, which now involve hundreds of men and hundreds of thousands of euro.

"It is a feud between three families, it has been going back generations," James explained.

"There are several incidents over the years that keep igniting the fire -- serious incidents.

"The families are always worried about what can happen to you," he told the Herald.

Knuckle, directed and filmed by Ian Palmer over the course of 12 years, has won the praise of critics and audiences around the world.

The raw footage in the documentary shows how men's faces are ripped apart with vicious blow after vicious blow.

The origins of the fight dates back as much as 50 years, before some of the men fighting can even remember.

Three clans of Irish Travellers have been at war ever since one member died following a pub fight in London.

But the war took a darker direction when shotguns were introduced to the fight.

Several years ago, the Quinn family's home itself was attacked, James was shot at and houses were burned out.

Although he had left London to escape the feud, it had followed him over to Ireland and he was forced to flee once again.

The Traveller said that Knuckle provided an insight for everyone in all sides of the feud for the first time.

"Things have cooled down a lot now," he emphasised.

"The documentary has helped. Instead of igniting it all again it has opened our eyes to the senseless acts of violence."

But he admits that it was difficult to watch the crude look at Traveller existence.

"We gave our honest opinions. It is up to the audience to side with whichever family they want," he said.

"There are things on the documentary the three clans don't like. But being on a documentary -- we understand that the truth had to be told.

"All the other fighters - I never hated them, I just didn't know them."

The footage shows how significant bets are wagered and the winner stands to win big.

But James hit back at politicians who called on this fighting to be investigated by gardai.

"People who saw the documentary saw €50/60/70,000 on the table," he said.

"It is a lot of money but it is not just for one person. It could be divided between hundreds.

"My beloved country is on its knees and the likes of them (politicians) are lining their own pockets, telling gardai to investigate us when there are people who will never come home because of their actions."

Self-professed family man James now lives with his wife, two sons and two grandchildren in a caravan park in Surrey.


His main focus is to develop bareknuckle boxing into a legitimate sport.

But he doesn't want to see his family become involved until it is.

"My sons want to do it. But I'm refusing to let them do it until it has all the sanctions," he said.

"It won't be for honour, crime or money. I want them to wait until it is a recognised sport. I only did bareknuckle boxing to quench the bigger feuding. I accepted it as a challenge on the condition that the dirty, gang fighting would stop.

"When we were fighting it was that whoever won, would walk away and leave it.

"I've moved on from a life of violence. I'm trying to be a better person and be more of a spokesperson for bareknuckle boxing," he added.

And the dad-of-two is aware about just how lucky he is after getting this break.

"Ian Palmer (the documentary maker) came to my brother Michael's wedding. He was introduced to me and I had a fight coming up.

"Our usual cameraman was unavailable and I asked him if he would do it. It rollercoasted from there -- from June 1997.

"We struck up a friendship. We invited him into our homes, opened up to him, told him things that Travellers never let anyone do before.

"I can't ever see another documentary like this made.

"We travelled to Utah to the Sundance screening, in New York at the Irish Film Festival to LA, Chicago and Texas.

James has now penned a book of the same name -- Knuckle -- which talks about his life before and after the documentary.

"It is an honest book -- there are things that members of my family might not like, but I wanted to tell the truth.

"If I didn't tell everything in the book, people would think it was all a lie," he said.

"I've gone from fighting on the side of the road, to walking along in downtown Manhattan," he added.

"I'm trying to be a better person and be more of a spokesperson for bareknuckle boxing.

"I want to make a career for myself out here in entertainment and sport."

Knuckle by James Quinn McDonagh is published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

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