The Ballad of Father Gilligan

About The Poet

William Butler Yeats (W. B Yeats) was born in County Dublin, Ireland, in the year 1865. He developed an early interest in poetry as a result of his curiosity about Irish folklore and the occult. His first poetic publication was in 1889, though he had been writing poetry for a long time before to that. He is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential figures. Along with many others, he is credited with revitalising Irish writing. Among his most well-known pieces are ‘When You Are Old,’ ‘Her Anxiety,’ and ‘A Dialogue of the Self and Soul.’ He was a versatile poet, composing poetry in a variety of styles. In 1923, he was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature. 73 years old when he died in 1939.

About The Ballad of Father Gilligan

As the title implies, the poem is a ballad. It depicts the story of an old priest named Peter Gilligan who was exhausted by the numerous calls he got from dying individuals.

Summary of The Ballad of Father Gilligan

There was an elderly priest named Father Gilligan who appeared to be exhausted. Half of his ‘flock’ was dead, and he was forced to execute a priestly task in their stead. On one such day of exhaustion, another man sent for him while he was asleep on a chair. Father Gilligan has had enough and sobs his despair. However, he instantly apologises to the Lord for his anger and kneels to seek pardon. He dozes off in that position. He sleeps for an extended period of time. Evenings come and go. When Father Gilligan regains consciousness, an entire day has passed. He promptly mounts a horse and makes his way to the man’s residence for which he was sent. However, the wife, who was taken aback to see Father Gillian visit them again, claims that the man had already died and was content due to the consolation Father Gillian provided before he died. Father Gilligan exclaims joyfully, declaring that God has heard his words and has sent down an angel to perform his duties for him.

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The Ballad of Father Gilligan: An Analysis

The poem is written in a series of very brief stanzas. The rhyming arrangement and brevity of the song make it an ideal ballad.

The poem begins with an elderly priest, Peter Gilligan, who is exhausted. Half of his flock had perished. Sleeping in their beds and collapsing beneath the green sods are both metaphors for their demise. The term ‘flock’ refers to the parish or the people who rely on the priest. This demonstrates that the priest had a sizable number of people relying on him, and he is the only one on whom they can rely. This, paired with the ‘green sods,’ creates a picture of a rural area with a high population to priest ratio. Thus, we have a priest who is quite exhausted in the countryside, likely a rural location.

‘Another poor man sends for the priest’: This demonstrates that the people who previously sent for him, the half of his flock that is now dead, are primarily impoverished as well. As a result, this presents a picture of an impoverished region with a lone priest.

The priest laments at learning of another man’s impending death. This demonstrates his concern for others and his character as a kind person. Such a person erupts. This demonstrates his exhaustion and the degree of the death that has recently visited the hamlet.

The night begins to fall. Its beginning is described with vivid images. God is thought to speak to mankind via whispers. This demonstrates that God is closest to us when we are at our most tranquil and invokes the Almighty’s kindness.

When morning arrives, the priest awakens, anxious that he has failed to perform his divine duty, and mounts the horse like the wind. ‘Rocky path and fen’ and similar imagery reinforce the poem’s rural setting. ‘Mavrone! Mavrone!’ screams the priest. This is the Irish term for a bereavement wail. This indicates that the scene is in the Irish countryside, which is unsurprising given Yeats’ Irish ancestry.

When the priest arrives at the poor man’s house, fearful that he has already died while he was sleeping, the man’s wife exclaims, ‘Father! You have returned!’ Though this is Father Gilligan’s first visit to the man’s home, his wife claims it is his second. The following stanzas explain.

‘And the poor man died?’ inquires the priest. He is unaware of the ‘again’ portion of his wife’s greeting. This demonstrates that he was really concerned for the man. According to his wife, he died an hour ago, gently and joyously, as the priest departed. Father Gilligan now comprehends the implication of the wife’s statement.

He expresses gratitude to the gracious God, who took pity on his exhausted self and sent an angel to do his task for him.

This is one of the few Yeats poems that have religious overtones.

The setting of The Ballad of Father Gilligan

The poetry takes place in rural surroundings. There is no mention of a location. The scene is established in the first stanza with the reference of ‘green sods.’ A more tangible example can be seen in stanzas 7 and 8, where the priest is supposed to saddle a horse and ride it extremely quickly. This is only viable in areas where there is sufficient room for quick riding, typically rural areas.

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Poetic Devices in The Ballad of Father Gilligan


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 emphasises 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.

Questions and Answers

Q. What is the Central Idea of The Ballad of Father Gilligan?

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.

Q. Describe the tone of The Ballad of Father Gilligan

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 help to those who need it the most.

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