Last king of the knuckle brigade

A personal feud is ripping apart the murky underworld of bare- knuckle boxing.
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At 1.30am on 27 May in Dundalk, the town just south of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, long notorious as a staging post for IRA operations, five men in balaclavas burst into the Spinning Wheel pub on Bridge Street, pinned a man who was drinking there to the ground, then shot him twice through the knee from behind, in classic punishment style.

It probably seemed like just another terrorist-generated knee-capping to the hardened locals: drug-connected, maybe, or with a political motive behind it. The Dundalk Democrat, indeed, gave it minimal space on the bottom of an inside page. But when the name of the victim became known, the story moved swiftly out of the commonplace. He was Jimmy Quinn McDonagh, known as "The Boxer", a member of a travelling family of much consequence in Ireland. Indeed, he was known as "King of the Travellers", a title he won earlier this year in the town of Drogheda by beating an opponent into bloody submission in a bare-knuckle fight of the barbaric kind that has been illegal since the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861.

Suddenly, a new motive had emerged for the shooting. McDonagh, it emerged, planned to leave Ireland shortly to defend his title in Manchester. Instead, he was lying in St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, waiting for the surgeon to take a bullet out of his leg, a situation which could have been greatly to the advantage of a punter who might have become nervous about the outcome of what, to its aficionados, was a major sporting event.

A sporting event? Certainly it remains so amongst a small and intransigent section of the travelling nation in Ireland and Britain who, even though semi-urbanised, are fighting a rearguard action against assimilation. "He was only into the bare boxing," one of McDonagh's family said after he was shot, "and that's fair. There are no weapons or anything. He is not a violent person. Ask anybody about Jimmy and they'll tell you he was a lovely person. Even the gardai have loads of time for him...."

If that is taken to imply that the Irish authorities are tolerant of a "sport" which many assume died with Tom Cribb, the legendary 19th-century bare-knuckle fighter, it would be a mistake. A week after the Dundalk shooting, the police in Galway, acting on a tip, moved in to prevent a full card of 11 bare-knuckle fights taking place, one arranged between two travelling families, some of whose members had come from England for the event.

Last week, Sergeant Pat Collins of the Galway force provided me with a gloss on that non-event. "There's an ongoing feud," he said, "between two families, the Wards and the McDonaghs, and it was resurrected two years ago at a funeral here in Co Galway, when a Ward put a foot on a McDonagh grave - or it could have been the other way about. These arranged fights are a way of formalising the feuding. Naturally, there's major money involved as well.

"Maybe the most important thing, though, is a feeling that the old ways should not be allowed to die out. King of the Travellers is a seriously respected title. It's been fought for in Manchester and London. But what happens sometimes is that the fist fights turn into real battles, with weapons such as slash hooks being used. The impromptu ones, after there's been drinking at a wedding or a funeral, are the most dangerous of all."

He looked at me quizzically. "You're in luck," he said. "There's a big McDonagh funeral taking place in Tuam, about 25 miles up the road."

Outside Burns's Funeral Home, the road was jammed with banged-up vans and minibuses bearing licence plates from Britain and every county in Ireland, and maybe 300 travellers. When it moved off along the Galway Road, the long cortege disrupts traffic in spite of its escort of two Garda patrol cars and a van full of constables, not counting the plainclothes men that Sgt Collins told me would be present. It was at the funeral itself, in the hamlet of Caherlistran, though, that the police began to look nervous. One foot on the grave can cause trouble, as they discovered three years previously.

But this time there was no clash of steel, no graveside drama. In the meantime, my feeling of being an intruder grew and, acting on information received, as Sgt Collins might say, I proceeded to a pub in Galway City where I had a rendezvous with a man who could supply me with at least a surrogate experience of what bare-knuckle fighting was really like. Formal meets, King of the Travellers title fights, would be impossible to penetrate, I had been told. And, in any case, only two or three might take place in a year.

"I tried to get you a classic," my man told me when we met. "Rooney against McGilvrey at Crossmaglen in 1990. But the fight was never settled. The ring got smaller and smaller and they were afraid of the knives coming out to protect bets, so it was stopped. There was a pounds 25,000 purse in a sack there as well, all cash money and no feckin' cheques." Though he had missed out with the Crossmaglen classic, he had found another videotape for me. "There was eight bouts on it to start with," he said, "but some idiot recorded over five of them."

Three bouts were quite enough, I found, when I played the tape later. It featured the McDonaghs again, this time in a tournament with the Barretts, another rival family. The fights had taken place in Galway City, behind a high, cracked concrete wall scabrous with graffiti, with a glimpse of council housing in the background, before around 200 men, no women. There were no seconds and no breaks for rounds.

But there was some formality. The fair, tall Barretts fought in grey sweat pants, the McDonaghs, shorter, heavy-shouldered, dark of complexion, in black jeans. And there was a referee shouting "Break!" from time to time, when the fighters went into a clinch. Or started kicking. Mostly, though, the pace was strangely slow, the fighters squaring up in a parody of real boxing, indulging, even, in Ali-style rope-a-dope evasions. At Wembley Arena there would have been catcalls at the slow pace.

There was just one bookie who squatted apart, his back to the wall, eyes half-closed as if the collection of money had wearied him. Even on video, his leather jacket looked expensive. Meanwhile, the crowd remained silent, far more so than the dinner-jacketed crowd you hear baying from the ringside in a world championship.

The noise on the video, when it comes, is sickening. In legitimate boxing, the blows, however damaging, are muffled by the gloves. In bare-knuckle, the sound is a shockingly hard, bony crack, and it was with one of those, with a wild swing from a McDonagh left, that the first bout I watched ended.

"Are ye beat, Michael? Are ye beat?" shouted the referee. (A bare knuckle fight can end only when one fighter concedes.) Michael Barrett was beat, right enough. His face and chest were a harlequin pattern of pale skin and blood. He conceded, then changed his mind, came back swinging, screeching obscenities. But McDonagh's hand was raised. "Shake lads!" said the referee. Barrett filled his mouth with a wad of spittle and ejaculated it at the winner. And there, tantalisingly, the tape ends.

I paid a visit to the Spinning Wheel in Dundalk where Jimmy Quinn McDonagh was knee-capped. The pub was not just closed but steel-shuttered. The man in the caff opposite said: "They just open when they feel like it." When they did, one of the biggest men I have ever seen - scarred, tattooed arms like hams - stood behind the bar. I had planned to chat with the clientele about the McDonagh shooting. Instead, I ordered a Diet Coke, drank it silently, made my excuses and left. Back in the caff, I asked the proprietor where Jimmy Quinn lived: I had been told his house was nearby. "He's gone," the man said. "Hunted out of it. And good luck to the men that shot him. There's plenty more work left in this town for them."

A last call, then, an hour's drive away in the town of Cavan, to see the man I had been told was the Godfather of bare-knuckle fighting. There, on a hilltop, there is a filthy, derelict council housing estate and, tucked close into it, a small huddle of travellers' caravans known as The Halt. I asked for John Maughan and out came a man with the lined, sensitive face of any ageing lyric poet.

``Which John Maughan did you want?" he asked me. "There's five of them living here."

I asked him if he would talk to me about the erstwhile King of the Travellers. "I don't think he was well-liked by some people," said Maughan. "Why don't you come back tonight? Late." For the second time that day, I made my excuses and left.