In “Ballad of Birmingham,” How Is Irony Used?

In his poem “Ballad of Birmingham,” Dudley Randall uses irony to show how the racist regime of the Jim-Crow-era South made even the safest places dangerous. The poem also uses dramatic irony to heighten the tragedy of the Birmingham bombing of 1963.

“Ballad of Birmingham” has a subtitle stating that it is a response to the 1963 bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four young girls. The first part of the poem consists of a dialogue between a mother and daughter. The daughter asks whether she can go march “in a Freedom March today.” The mother denies this request, citing the police’s use of violent crowd control. The mother tells her daughter to go sing in the children’s choir at church instead.

The fifth and sixth stanza of the poem describe how the daughter gets dressed for church and how happy her mother is that she knows her daughter is in a “sacred place.” However, the final two stanzas show how her mother’s trust was misplaced. The fact that the bomber targeted a church is ironic, for a church is supposed to be a holy, safe place.

By informing the audience that the poem is a response to the Birmingham bombing of 1963, Randall creates dramatic irony. The trust that the mother places in the safety of the church is entirely misplaced, and her innocence, as well as that of her idealistic daughter, make the coming tragedy all the more wrenching because the audience sees it coming.