The poem, as the title says, is a ballad. It tells the story of an old priest named Peter Gilligan who was tired from the many calls he received from dying people.
About The Poet:
William Butler Yeats (W. B Yeats) was born in the year 1865 at Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland. His interest in poetry came on at an early age due to his fascination with the Irish legends and occults. His earliest publishing of verse was in the year 1889, though he wrote poetry long before that. He is considered one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He is responsible for the revival of Irish literature alongside many others. His most notable works include ‘When You are Old’, ‘Her Anxiety’ and ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’. He was a versatile writer and wrote his poetry in many forms. He received the Noble Prize in Literature in the year 1923. He died in 1939 at the age of 73.
The Ballad of Father Gilligan: Setting
The setting of the poem is in a countryside. It is not specified where. The setting is seen from the first stanza where ‘green sods’ is mentioned. A more concrete proof would be in the stanzas 7 and 8 where the priest is said to saddle a horse and ride on it very fast. This is only possible in places with relative space to ride fast; namely countryside.
The Ballad of Father Gilligan: Poetic Devices
The poem is made of multiple stanzas of 4 lines each.
There is regular rhyme throughout the poem. Each stanza has a rhyme scheme of ABCB.
A prime example is the fifth stanza. The whole stanza contains vivid imagery. We see the night sky twinkling with millions of stars, we hear the leaves shaking in the wind, and we watch as the whole world gets covered in darkness. Apart from this, there is also imagery when the priest rides the horse. The whole poem is a bundle of imagery.
The poem seems simple enough but it has hidden depths in it. It has a moral too. Thus it becomes an allegory.
‘die and die’ in the third stanza emphasis the grief of the priest at the news of another man’s suffering. ‘Mavrone! Mavrone!’ in the latter half of the poem too shows the priest’s concern and sincerity towards the man and his job
The Ballad of Father Gilligan: Summary
There is one old priest named Father Gilligan who was very tired. Half of his ‘flock’ were dead and he had to perform a priest’s duty while passing for all of them. On one such day of tiredness, while he was asleep on a chair, another man sent for him. Father Gilligan could bear it no longer and cries out his distress. But then he immediately asks forgiveness from the Lord for his outburst and he kneels and prays for it. He falls asleep in that position. He sleeps for a very long time. Night comes and goes. When Father Gilligan wakes up, a whole day has passed. He immediately gets on a horse and reaches the man’s home for whom he was sent. But the wife, who was shocked to see Father Gillian come to visit them again, says that the man already passed away and that he was to Father Gillian’s comfort provided before he died. Father Gilligan cries out in joy, saying that God heard his words and sent down an angel to do his job for him.
The Ballad of Father Gilligan: Analysis
The poem is written in multiple stanzas of a very short length. The rhyme scheme and the short length make it a perfect ballad.
The poem starts with the old priest, Peter Gilligan who is very, very tired. Half of his ‘flock’ were dead. Sleeping in their beds and lying down under the green sods are metaphors for them being dead. ‘Flock’ here means parish or the people who depend on the priest. This shows that the priest had a considerable number of people depending on him and he is the only one they can depend on. This combined with the ‘green sods’ gives us an image of a countryside, where people to priest ratio is very high. So, we have a priest in a countryside, presumably a rural area who is very tired.
‘Another poor man sends for the priest’: This shows that the people who sent for him previously, the half of his flock who are dead, are also mostly poor. So this paints us an image of a poor countryside with a single priest.
The priest grieves hearing that another man was going to die. This shows he cares for the people and that he was a good person. Such a person makes an outburst. This goes to show his tiredness and the extent of death which visited the village recently.
The night descends. Vivid imagery is used to describe its onset. God is said to whisper to mankind. This shows that God is closest to us when we are at our very peaceful and convys the benevolence of the Almighty.
When morning comes, the priest wakes up, in anxiety that he has failed to do his divine duty, and rides like the wind on the horse. ‘Rocky lane and fen’ and such imagery cement the idea that the setting of the poem is in a poor countryside. ‘Mavrone! Mavrone!’ the priest cries. This is Irish for a cry of grief. This shows the setting is in an Irish countryside, no surprise there, knowing that Yeats was Irish.
When the priest reaches the poor man’s house, fearing he already died when he (the priest) was asleep, the man’s wife says, ‘Father! You’ve come again!’ Though this is the first time that Father Gilligan came to the man’s house, the wife says it is the second. The explanation is given in the following stanzas.
The priest says ‘And the poor man died?’ He does not notice the ‘again’ part of the wife’s greeting. This shows that he was genuinely distressed for the man. The wife says that he died an hour ago, peacefully and happily when the priest left. It finally sinks to Father Gilligan the implication of what the wife was saying.
He thanks the merciful God who took pity on his tired self and sent an angel of His, to do his work for him.
This is one of the few poems of Yeats that has religious intonations in it.
The Ballad of Father Gilligan: Central Idea
The central idea of the poem is to show that God is merciful. He sends help for those in need of it and at times when they need it the most. The poem also shows the Irish countryside and its poverty and is Yeats’s one of the very few contributions to Irish folklore.
The Ballad of Father Gilligan: Tone
The tone of the poem is sad and depressing at first; with all the deaths of the poor people. It turns repentant when Father Gilligan asks for forgiveness for his outburst. Then it turns hurried and suspenseful as he rides quickly to the man’s house. Finally, it turns hopeful. It shows that there is a help to those who need it the most.
W B Yeats writes a simple ballad telling a small story with some depths to it. You can also refer to a more detailed summary of The Ballad of Father Gilligan here.