The play, set on an island west of Ireland, opens on a kitchen inside a cottage filled with nets, oil-skins, and cooking tools. Cathleen, a girl around twenty years old, is kneading dough and spinning thread when Nora, her younger sister, asks the whereabouts of their mother Maurya.
The set indicates that this is a fisherman’s cottage and that the division of labor is traditional. The women will use the kitchen equipment, and the men will use the fishing equipment on the sea.
After Cathleen tells her that Maurya is lying down, Nora presents a bundle that the young priest has given her containing a shirt and stocking from a drowned man in Donegal who may be their brother Michael. The wind blows open the door, spurring Cathleen to ask Nora if the young priest would stop Bartley, their last living brother, from going on the sea in such a storm. However, the priest had assured Nora that God would not leave Maurya with no son living after all of her prayers. Cathleen decides that she and Nora will not open the bundle yet in case Maurya walks in.
This scene makes clear the danger that nature (and the sea, in particular) presents to the men of the family, and it also shows that the sea is their livelihood. To counter their grief and their fear of the sea, the priest encourages the family to have faith that God will protect Bartley from harm. The care Nora takes to make sure Maurya does not immediately find out about the potential proof of her son’s death suggests the toll that losing so many children has taken on her.
Hearing Maurya stirring in the other room, Cathleen hides the bundle in the turf-loft and throws turf down to feed the oven, in which bread is baking for Bartley’s journey. Upon entering, Maurya declares that Bartley will not go on the sea in such weather and that the young priest will surely stop him. Nora tells her that the priest will not stop him and that Bartley is determined to go.
As it is clearly Bartley’s duty to go on the sea, Cathleen’s job is to prepare food for his trip. Maurya echoes Cathleen’s prior question about whether the priest could prevent Bartley from leaving, illustrating the family’s anxiety over losing another man in the family.
A sad, quiet Bartley enters and quickly asks for the rope, which Cathleen had hung up to prevent the pig from eating it. Maurya attempts to keep Bartley from taking the rope, as they might need it if Michael’s body washes up. She then reflects on the injustice of having paid so much for the white boards to make Michael’s coffin since there’s no body to bury yet, and Bartley dismisses the idea that there’s still a chance of finding Michael’s body.
Bartley’s death is foreshadowed heavily by the rope, which is associated with Michael’s corpse and also resembles a noose. The white boards, which will be used to make a coffin, invoke the idea that the family is waiting for a corpse. The direness of the family’s situation is evident in the hungry pig’s attempt to eat the rope, as well as Maurya’s worry about the expense of the boards.
As Bartley uses the rope to make a halter for his horse, he instructs Cathleen on taking care of certain chores once he is gone, though Maurya is skeptical that Cathleen could do either. Maurya questions how she and her daughters will live once Bartley is dead and continues to try to prevent Bartley from going out onto the sea. Cathleen firmly tells her, “It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea,” and Bartley leaves.
Maurya’s worry about the women’s future illustrates the necessity of having a man in the family to do the dangerous work. Though Bartley can instruct Cathleen on how to do certain traditionally male jobs around the cottage, she will not be able to fill his shoes completely, since she cannot go on the sea.
Maurya despairingly cries out that she will have no son left her by nightfall, and Cathleen rebukes her for not giving Bartley a blessing and “sending him out with an unlucky word behind him.” Realizing that they have also forgotten to give Bartley his bread, Cathleen sends Maurya to bring the bread to Bartley before he is gone and, while she’s at it, to give him his blessing. Nora gives her Michael’s old walking stick to steady her, and Maurya sadly reflects on the irony of the young leaving things behind for the old.
Cathleen’s insistence on Maurya giving a blessing to Bartley shows that she still does hope for God’s protection against the sea. She scolds her own elderly mother for her pessimism, which shows her superstitious belief that pessimism will give Bartley bad luck. Maurya’s use of the walking stick Michael left behind also demonstrates the irony of the old outliving the young.
With Maurya gone after Bartley, Cathleen and Nora have their chance to look through the bundle. Cutting through the knots, they take out the bit of stocking. After counting the stitches in the stocking, they realize it must indeed be Michael’s, for Nora remembered dropping four stitches when making it. They are overcome with grief at the knowledge that Michael has drowned, lamenting that there is nothing left of his body “but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking.”
Though it was fairly apparent that Michael has died at sea, Cathleen and Nora finally have evidence of his passing. It’s noteworthy how anonymous this evidence is: the only sign that the clothes belong to Michael is actually unrelated to him: it’s Nora’s stitches. There is no body and no direct evidence of him—it’s as though the sea has subsumed his whole being.
Cathleen hears Maurya coming back up the path, and decides that they will not tell her about the proof of Michael’s death until Bartley returns from his voyage. The girls busy themselves, and Maurya comes in slowly, still carrying the bread. Cathleen questions Maurya about what has happened as she begins to keen (to wail in grief). Weakly and fearfully, Maurya reveals that she has seen Michael. Cathleen softly contradicts her, telling her that “his body is after being found in the far north, and he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God.”
Maurya’s fragility is evident in Cathleen’s need to protect Maurya from the certainty of Michael’s death until Bartley comes home safely. Once Maurya reveals her vision, Cathleen frames Michael’s death as delicately and positively as possible, telling her mother that God gave Michael a “clean burial,” rather than emphasizing that the sea has killed yet another of their men.
Maurya tells her daughters that as she tried to say “God speed you” to Bartley, the words choked in her throat. She then saw Michael in fine clothes and shoes riding behind Bartley on a gray pony. Cathleen immediately begins to keen, believing that this is an omen of death for Bartley, and Nora clings to the young priest’s promise that God would not leave Maurya destitute.
The family’s pagan beliefs are strong enough that Cathleen and Maurya are both convinced that Maurya’s vision is an omen. Nora hangs on to her Catholic faith and trust in the priest, wanting desperately to choose hope over dismay.
As Maurya, grief-stricken and oblivious to her surroundings, recounts the ways in which her sons, husband, and father-in-law have died on the sea, Nora and Cathleen hear someone crying out on the seashore. Old women begin to come into the house and kneel down. Maurya asks Cathleen who has died and wonders how they would know if it was Michael after being so long in the sea. Cathleen declares that it is indeed Michael and shows her mother the clothes from the bundle.
The suffering that Maurya and her family has endured over the years becomes even more heart-wrenchingly clear through Maurya’s list of the dead. The fact that a procession of old women are bringing in the body underscores the unnatural age distribution on the island: the young men are dying, but the old are still alive.
However, it is in fact Bartley who has died. More townspeople enter the cottage, and Bartley’s body is carried in on a plank with a bit of sail covering it. One of the women tells Cathleen that Bartley’s horse knocked him into the sea.
Maurya’s vision of Bartley’s death has come to pass, suggesting that the sea is indeed more powerful than God.
The women who have gathered in the cottage begin to keen. As she anoints Bartley with Holy Water, Maurya speaks aloud to herself of how “there isn’t anything more the sea can do to [her].” Despite her prayers, the sea has taken her last son and she now will have “a great rest.” Cathleen reflects on how “old” and “broken” Maurya has become, and Maurya prays for the souls of her sons and of “every one…left living in the world.” Maurya then declares that it is everyone’s fate to die in the end and that “we must be satisfied.”
Though her Christian faith has, in a sense, failed her, Maurya still anoints Bartley with Holy Water and prays. She implies that it will also be her fate to die soon, since the sea has taken her sons and broken her spirit. Death is inevitable, and the power of the sea simply hastens one’s passing. It is impossible to fight either death or the will of the sea.