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  • “Those were Troublesome Times in Ireland, I Understand”:Ireland, the Limits of Knowledge, and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier

We cannot rule Ireland, for we cannot understand what Ireland wants.

—Ford Madox Ford, "A Tory Plea for Home Rule"

I don't know; one can't comment on Ireland. At least I can't. As for shooting the rebels: I wish it had been done in situ; I suppose it had to be done, tho' I don't know why. . . . But at any rate it is no business, thank God, of mine to worry about these affairs.

—Ford Madox Ford, Letters

Ford Madox Ford's morose noncomment on the 1916 Easter Rising, penned to Lucy Masterman within days of the pro forma trial and subsequent execution of the Irish rebel leaders, at once belies and typifies his attitude toward the Irish question. Though seemingly nonplused by the rebellion—understandable, given that he was writing from Cardiff Castle just before his unit's mobilization to the [End Page 697] trenches1 —Ford was hardly indifferent to Irish affairs. A self-described "sentimental Tory" but a "passionate Home Ruler" (Return 81, 415), he frequently spoke out against his party's unionist policies,2 particularly during the Third Home Rule debates of 1911–1914, when he claimed that "the country is drifting to ruin because we will not let the Irish alone" ("Tory Plea" 102), and during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–1921, when he helped to direct, in the words of one associate, "a propaganda campaign against . . . the English occupation of Ireland" (qtd. in Saunders 2: 102). As Ford put it in 1932, the Irish question was a continual source of worry because he simply could not abide "the idea of people of one race and religion being ruled over by people of alien race and another religion" (Return 415). Yet the Masterman letter, for all its apparent indifference to Irish matters, is typical in this one respect: Ford's use of the phrase, "I don't know." Whenever he addresses England's "oldest colony of all" (History 119), whether the topic is Home Rule, the rebellion, the status of Ulster, or simply the behavior of two friends from the House of Commons—a "Nationalist" and an "Ulster Unionist" who would amicably "crack Irish provincial jokes . . . all afternoon," only "to call down the curse of God one upon the other" during that evening's session—his conclusions are invariably the same: "Obviously I could know nothing about the Irish question" (Return 409).

Ford was certainly not the only person to view Ireland as a Gordian knot, but one detects in his remarks an extreme, almost theatrical degree of mystification, as if the very nature of the Irish question prompts him to slip into the role of baffled outsider lost in a world that defies comprehension. Indeed, were it not for the periodic outbursts endorsing the Irish cause, the sentiments offered could almost be those of an aged John Dowell, The Good Soldier's eminently perplexed narrator. Like Dowell, Ford relies on a series of discrete anecdotes, all of which are designed to produce a broader impression of the complex issues facing anyone who would attempt to make sense of Irish affairs. He provides factual details, recounts hushed conversations among MPs, and, on one occasion, even quotes the private remarks of King George as relayed to him by C. F. G. Masterman, adding, with the type of earnest sincerity characteristic of so many of Dowell's second-hand reports, "I made a note of [the King's] words immediately afterwards. It was the only note I ever made, but the occasion seemed very extraordinary" (Return 415).3 Yet for all the facts, a coherent pattern of meaning never emerges. Hoping to understand "an outrage that excited" both Unionists and Nationalists alike, Ford explains that, after listening to the various accounts, "I could not tell . . . whether the member of the Royal Irish Constabulary had murdered the widow woman and stolen her goose [End Page 698] or whether the widow's goose had bitten the policeman's leg off. And it was all inextricably mixed up with the fact...


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