One-hundred years ago, William Butler Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first of four Irishmen to be awarded the distinction, the others being George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. Of them, only Heaney was born a Catholic. He once said about his faith background, “the older I get, the more I remember the benediction of it all.”

It is odd that the most famous writers of this most famously Catholic of countries were not only not Catholic, but also anti-Catholic. Yeats was an occultist whose affection for the mythology of the Irish peasantry did not stop him from assuming a neo-paganism called Theosophy. Shaw had so little use for the Church that he associated Joan of Arc with the Reformation, and Joyce was an apostate who gloried in his rebellion against the Church. Beckett was an Anglican agnostic.

Irish high culture has always labored, to some degree, in the shadows of the Anglo colonizers. This, despite the high culture’s often nationalistic opposition to the English. Dublin’s Abbey Theater was founded by Yeats among others to be the forge of an Irish culture independent of the British Empire, but it did not participate in the revival of the Gaelic language.

In his Nobel Prize address, Yeats acknowledged that English, not Gaelic, was the language in which modern Ireland “thinks and does business.” He was of the landlord class but identified with the tenants, and he loved Cathleen ni Houlihan, the heroine of a play he wrote, who was his personification of the Irish motherland.

His co-foundress of the nationalist Abbey Theater, Lady Gregory, learned Gaelic and collected and translated many books of folktales but herself was Anglo-Irish. Once she admitted to Yeats that her identification with the country people had made her think of becoming Catholic, but she thought that to be closer to the peasants, it was better for her to remain a kind of neo-pagan.

She accepted all the ghost stories and faery tales of the country people as true, as did Yeats. But Yeats went a bit further than her because he was bewitched, according to Chesterton, by the extravagant Madame Blavatsky, a spiritualist fraud of international renown.

Chesterton knew and admired Yeats a great deal. He wrote of the Irish revival in his essay, “Celts and Celtophiles” in his book “Heretics,” and of his friendship with the poet in his autobiography. In fact, he knew the poet’s whole family, and praised the eloquence of John Yeats, William’s father, an artist and a famous talker.

Chesterton saw in Yeats a kindred spirit and applauded his romanticism, and his belief in the supernatural spirits and faeries that the Irish country people considered a part of their cosmos. Nevertheless, Chesterton realized that Yeats had gone too far in his swing away from Victorian materialism.

The Catholic writer loved Yeats’ play, “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” in which a faery tempts a newly married woman away from husband and home, but said at the end he was surprised he was more on the side of the family than the faery folk Yeats was extolling. “There is only one thing against ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire,’ ” Chesterton wrote. “The heart does not desire it.”

The mythic heroes and spirits that Yeats celebrated in his poetry did not have much to do with Catholicism, but there is one brilliant exception. In the poem, “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” the poet wrote of

The old priest Peter Gilligan / Was weary night and day; / For half his flock were in their beds, /

Or under green sods lay.

Father Gilligan is called to the bedside of a dying man, and complains a bit about his lack of rest. He was so ashamed of his reaction (“my body spake, not I”) that he knelt down asking pardon, and then fell asleep leaning against the chair.

He woke near dawn in panic and “rode as he never rode,” trying to reach the man before he died. He reaches the farm and is met at the door by the man’s wife. 

“Father! You come again!” she said in surprise, and explained that her husband had died “merry as a bird” after the priest had left his bedside.

The priest kneels down again and says:

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.

This sounds like a real Catholic miracle story, a folk tale with compassion. The poor priest, the dying man, the new widow are all three bound together in the mystery of God’s grace.

I am sure it was a story that Yeats heard from either his family’s tenants or servants or those of Lady Gregory in the Irish countryside. God’s providence penetrates the nitty gritty of life, the fatigue that makes a priest fall asleep on his chair and the faith of a people that will not go unattended.

Yeats, as Chesterton said, was a great poet, lyrical like few others and many of his poems are better poetry perhaps than this ballad, but none move me the same way.

He won the Nobel Prize, he said, because of his nationalist theater and because his Ireland was finally an independent nation, but his poems live on.

The French theologian, Charles Journet, said that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry was redeemed even if the poet did not achieve redemption. I love this poem and, maybe it’s because I can relate to having half my parish in the cemetery, I hope that, in the case of Yeats, both the poetry and poet achieved redemption.

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.”