What is the theme of William Butler Yeats's poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan?"

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dymatsuoka eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The two central themes of the poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan" are the tremendous stresses a priest must face in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, and the omnipresent help of a loving God.

The reader is told at the very beginning of the poem that Father Gilligan is "old," and "weary night and day." His parishioners, the "flock" of which he is in charge, are dying "in their beds," or dead already, "beneath the sod." When yet another poor soul comes to him seeking solace as a family member is about to pass, Father Gilligan is pushed to the breaking point; he cries out, "I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace," and out of sheer exhaustion, falls asleep in his chair. Father Gilligan wants with all his heart to be there for all of those in his flock in their times of need, but he has reached the limits of his strength. He feels a terrible guilt at not being able to fulfill his overwhelming responsibilities, and asks God to forgive him for his weaknesses.

When Father Gilligan wakes to find that the man whom he was supposed to be comforting during his last moments has died, he rushes over to his house, filled with remorse that he had not been there to ease his passing. To his surprise, the "sick man's wife" tells him that her husband "turned and died as merry as a bird." Father Gilligan kneels with relief and a sense of awe at these words. He knows that God, in his mercy, has covered for him, sending "one of His great angels down" to be with the man as he died. God "has pity on the least of things" - which is what the old priest humbly considers himself; when he is weak, God will be there to help him. Father Gilligan need not do everything by himself, because a merciful, benevolent God will be there to lift him up.