Launching the True Stories feature-length documentary strand on Channel 4, Gypsy Blood examines the culture of violence handed down through generations of gypsy and traveller fathers to their sons.
Gypsy Blood was filmed over two years by first-time director and award-winning photographer Leo Maguire. Over a four-year period Maguire lived with the gypsy communities on their sites, gaining unprecedented and intimate access to men who live amongst us and yet are driven by different values. As one father, Fred Butcher, puts it: “We don’t take each other to court, we don’t sue each other. If we have got a problem with each other we go out and fight”.
The film follows the story of two families, showing how they fight for respect and revealing the price they pay – the cycles of revenge that erupt into sudden and terrifying violence.
The Doherty’s are Irish Traveller royalty. Hughie Doherty, 27, is the son of Francie ‘The Punk’ Doherty, once one of the most feared bare-knuckle boxers in the land. Hughie is determined to bring up his seven-year-old son, also called Francie, to be as tough and uncompromising as the grandfather he’s named after: “You’re born with it … and you won’t have anyone make a fool out of you, or making you look small …. You would rather die, and fight till the bitter end…” For Hughie, what’s at stake is the Doherty name. As Hughie himself becomes embroiled in a fight to defend his family’s honour, we follow his son Francie, caught between two worlds, learning to read at primary school while learning to fight with his fists at home. We watch Francie develop a toughness that culminates in an unrelenting sparring session as he takes on an older boy and makes his father proud.
Fred Butcher is Romany and father to nine-year-old Freddy Cole. He’s a career fighter but, unlike Hughie Doherty, he’s worried about the future of his son in the violent world of some gypsy men. Freddy Cole is a sensitive child, who fears his father will be badly hurt in a fight. So Fred is torn between a gypsy code of honour and his love as a father. The film charts the story of how he himself nearly died in a machete attack as a day of drinking and sparring went terribly wrong.
Tracing these stories, Gypsy Blood becomes a haunting study of masculinity and violence, and the uneasy, equivocal relationship gypsy and traveller men have with their epic, bare-knuckle traditions. These fathers and sons carry with them a burden of fear and physical damage, broken bones and scars, and yet fighting remains, for many, the essence of what it means to be a man. As Hughie Doherty says: “It is like a disease, a disease that gets into your blood. And sometimes you close your eyes and for that moment I wish I wasn’t like it, but you can’t help it.”
Tonight, 10pm Channel 4