Introduction

The poem is a ballad and tells the tale of Father Gilligan who is exhausted in his service to aid the dying people and seeks the help of the Almighty.

About the Poet

William Butler Yeats (1865 –1939) is an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his ‘inspired poetry’. Yeats is one of the few writers who completed his greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize which include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929).

Theme

God is ever merciful and will help those who seek his help. The poem serves as a reminder to never feel alone and not be bashful when asking God for His help.

Stanzas I, II & III

The old priest Peter Gilligan
Was weary night and day 
For half his flock were in their beds 
Or under green sods lay.

Once, while he nodded in a chair
At the moth-hour of the eve
Another poor man sent for him,
And he began to grieve.

'I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die;
And after cried he, 'God forgive!
My body spake not I!'

Father Gilligan is an old priest who helps his people to depart to the next world peacefully by offering spiritual support. The time is such that half his folk has passed away. The phrases ‘in their beds’ and ‘under green sods lay’ refer to their demises. Once when he was sat in his chair another duty call for him arrived and under heavy exhaustion, he wailed. It may be understood that the region he was in had a mass of people passing away and not many priests, this led to Father Gilligan becoming tired and getting little rest. After his impulsive complaint, the father felt very guilty and immediately sought God’s mercy.

Stanzas IV, V & VI

He knelt, and leaning on the chair
He prayed and fell asleep;
And the moth-hour went from the fields,
And stars began to peep.

They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind
And God covered the world with shade
And whispered to mankind.

Upon the time of sparrow chirp
When the moths came once more,
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Stood upright on the floor.

Father Gilligan prayed to God for some relief and then on his chair, sleep embraced him. ‘And God covered the world with shade, And whispered to mankind.’, inculcates that God has His way of communicating with His creation. The starry night turned into a bright day as sparrows chirped when he finally gained consciousness. 

Stanzas VII, VIII & IX

'Mavrone, mavrone! The man has died one
While I slept in the chair.'
He roused his horse out of its sleep
And rode with little care.

He rode now as he never rode,
By rocky lane and fen;
The sick man's wife opened the door,
'Father! you come again!'

'And is the poor man dead?' he cried
'He died an hour ago.'
The old priest Peter Gilligan
In grief swayed to and fro.

The use of the expression ‘mavrone’ reveals that the ballad is set in an Irish region. Upon waking up, Father Gilligan realises that he overslept and hurries on his horse to the departing man. He rides recklessly and when the man’s wife answers the door she is surprised to see him come. It is important to note the use of the word ‘again’ as the wife receives him, for it is the first time that Father has visited them.  However, Father Gilligan too worried about the sick man fails to notice her address towards him and instead enquires about the man’s departure. The wife reveals that her husband passed away an hour ago.

Stanzas X, XI & XII

'When you were gone, he turned and died,
As merry as a bird.'
The old priest Peter Gilligan
He knelt him at that word.

'He Who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of this great angels down,
To help me in my need.

'He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.'

The wife shares that after Father Gilligan left, the man passed away rather peacefully. Upon hearing this and realising what had occurred, Father Gilligan humbled and praised God. It was not him who had arrived here earlier as the wife misunderstood, but an angel sent by God as an answer to the priest’s prayer and call for help. He praises God by addressing him as the One wrapped in purple robes and the controller of planets. He refers to himself as an insignificant being sleeping on a chair, when God took mercy on him.