Why was Father Gilligan tired and depressed in "The Balled of Father Gilligan"?

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In “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” Irish poet William Butler Yeats tells the tale of a tired and aged priest, Father Gilligan, who is sleep-deprived and can barely keep up with the all-hours duty of providing comfort and Last Rites for folks who are sick and dying. The Irish have...

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In “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” Irish poet William Butler Yeats tells the tale of a tired and aged priest, Father Gilligan, who is sleep-deprived and can barely keep up with the all-hours duty of providing comfort and Last Rites for folks who are sick and dying. The Irish have long been predominantly Roman Catholics, and Last Rites (also called “Extreme Unction”) are a very important sacrament. In addition to ministering to the sick at all hours, Father Gilligan would have also had to preside over funerals during the day.

It seems that an epidemic of some kind is sweeping across the village, given that we read in the first stanza, “For half his flock were in their beds / Or under green sod lay.” Here the word “flock” is a Biblical reference to Jesus’s “Parable of the Good Shepherd,” and in the poem is a metaphor for the church congregation. Father Gilligan is, in turn, their shepherd and his duties are great.

Given that so many people he knows are dying or have died, Father Gilligan is also emotionally worn out by everything that is going on. Evening comes and yet another dying man sends for him. Father Gilligan kneels down to pray and inadvertently falls asleep. The next thing he knows the sparrows are chirping and it is morning. In a panic, the old priest wakes up and cries out, “Mavrone, mavrone!” (an Irish expression that means “grief”). He rides his horse at break-neck speed to the sick man’s house. When he arrives, the wife says, “Father, you come again,” even though he had not been there earlier. Father Gilligan learns that the sick man died “as merry as a bird.”

Father Gilligan thus realizes that while he slept, God sent an angel to take over his duties. This divine act of mercy provided desperately needed rest for the physically and emotionally exhausted priest, along with comfort for dying man.

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