The Ballad of Father Gilligan

I have been rereading Joyce’s Dubliners recently – a reading that has been both delightful and depressing. Delightful because Joyce is a truly great short story writer (I say this to duck the question of whether he was a great novelist, or whether Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are in any sense novels!) It is funny how different stories stand out and stay in your head each time you read it. I suppose it is natural, given that the stories are in order of the age of their protagonists, that the stories nearer the beginning should most impress younger readers – I loved An Encounter when I first read it as a teenager – and that older readers should appreciate the later stories more. But the one that really struck me – and depressed me – this time was the one at the very beginning of the book – The Sisters.

The Sisters follows a young boy as he anticipates and then learns of the death of an old priest. His feelings for the priest are ambiguous: he obviously admires him as one of the few learned men he knows, and the priest also held some affection and esteem for the boy, to judge from his memories of being tested by him on theological niceties; but he seems to have some uneasy feelings about him too. When his uncle and their house guest joke that it is better for young boys to be away from the influence of such a man, he is inwardly enraged, and yet this seems to accord with some of the boy’s unspoken notions. After an unsettling dream, he views the priest’s body the next day with his aunt, and then they invited to sit for drinks and crackers with the deceased clergyman’s sisters. Father Flynn’s sisters gossip about their brother’s life, explaining to the boy’s aunt that he was a ‘disappointed man’, hinting that there was a question over whether he had been entitled to be given last rites (though he was) and then telling a vague story meant to explain his difficulty that really raises more questions than answers: he had suffered from terrible guilt after breaking his sacramental chalice, though the sister unhelpfully explains that the breakage was really a young boy’s fault.

Such an allusive story has given rise to multiple interpretations as to the nature of Father Flynn’s infirmity. Reading the story in 2013, in the light of the scandals that have beset the Catholic Church in recent decades, it is hard not to imagine a sexual element to the priest’s guilt. Indeed, many readers have done just that, and Joyce was not one to shy from sexual allusions – though stories of clerical sexual abuse were not current when the story was written. Most critics shy away from interpreting Father Flynn as an active pederast, though many conjecture on repressed desires and guilt at his own perceived perversion. Not all readers interpret the priest’s problems as sexual, however, instead pointing to signs in the novel that he has had a crisis of faith – and further that he has sown in his ward the seeds of his own doubt.

The figure of Father Flynn, like many figures in Dubliners, seems to stand for something more than himself: the corrupt, hypocritical priest who exercise a corrupting influence on the young, perhaps on society as a whole. Joyce was raised a Catholic, but by adulthood had rejected the teachings of the Church and hoped for a diminution of its influence in Ireland – he felt this just as important tas the cause of Irish independence from Britain.

The Church’s role, and its esteem in the public imagination, has severely diminished since Joyce wrote The Sisters, perhaps more dramatically in Ireland than anywhere else, but certainly in other parts of the Western world too. The popular image of the priest, certainly among many non-Catholics or non-practising Catholics, is of a deeply flawed man, if not a pervert then a hypocrite, and possibly a buffoon to boot, working for a deeply flawed, possibly sinister, institution.

But there’s another clerical figure who will make an appearance in popular culture sometimes: a priest who is flawed, who might even smoke and drink, but is a humane and sincere servant of God. Think of the mob-defying Father Barry in the film, On the Waterfront, a man who cares for people and stands up for what is right. Or think of the beleaguered Father Gilligan in this poem of Yeats’:


The Ballad of Father Gilligan


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 on a chair,        

At the moth-hour of 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!” 


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 come once more, 

The old priest, Peter Gilligan, 

Stood upright on the floor. 


“Mavrone, mavrone! the man has died,

While I slept on 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. 


“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 His 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.”


Now I have to admit that I was a little nonplussed the first time I read this. I missed the central mysterious event of the poem that is referred to: when Father Gilligan arrives at the house of the stricken man, he is arriving for the first time since he has been called their by the wife – but she says to him in surprise “you come again”, showing that somebody came in his guise – an angel, Father Gilligan thinks – and administered the last rites that in Catholic tradition are essential to secure passage of the man’s soul to Heaven. And this reveals the significance of that magical middle stanza where the stars come out and God whispers to the earth.

Father Gilligan is not an infallible priest, but a human being with human shortcomings. There’s a touch of Father Ted in him in his petulant outburst and quick apology at the beginning of the poem. He is redeemed, in the readers eyes by his sincerity, both when he realizes he has slept and rushes ‘without care’ to the stricken man’s house, and when he prays in relief after he realizes what has happened. Gilligan is, like Flynn, a flawed character, but he is a good person doing good work for a benevolent God. Gilligan is one of the few representatives of the Catholic Church that appears in Yeats’ work, and unlike those in Joyce’s work, he is a positive representation.

This may be, in some part, down to the Yeats’ Protestantism. One can readily imagine that in a period of strong nationalist feeling, a protestant, ‘Anglo-Irish’ poet such as Yeats would be keen to show some sympathy to the tradition of the majority of his countrymen. But there’s a deeper reason for the difference, perhaps, that lies in the men’s differing artistic and emotional temperaments: one is deconstructive, ambiguous, showing us the world anew by unsettling our conceptions; the other is poetic, hopeful, finding the deeper spiritual and aesthetic truth in myth, legend and folktale. Both, in their way, show us the truth – Father Flynn and others like him might loom large in the story of 20th and 21st Century Catholicism, but Father Gilligan and others like him (and like Father Barry) played their part too.


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Filed under Literature, Poetry

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