In a run-down country pub on the west coast of Ireland, Pegeen Mike, a “wild-looking but fine girl of about twenty,” sits writing a list of items she needs for her upcoming wedding to Shawn Keogh. Shawn enters, “a fat and fair young man,” and asks nervously whether Michael Flaherty, the pub’s owner and Pegeen’s father, is around.
The rural setting creates a sense of isolation in which not much usually happens. Shawn is nervous because he is god-fearing and doesn’t think he should be alone with Pegeen Mike, his fiancée, until they are married.
Pegeen explains that her father has gone to a wake nearby and expresses her fear at being left alone in the pub all night. Shawn tells her that, when the local priest, Father Reilly, grants them permission to wed, she’ll not have to worry about the being alone in the darkness any longer. Pegeen teases him, wondering why the church authorities would pay any attention to their village.
Synge’s use of the looming darkness of night creates a kind of space into which a hero might enter and conquer Pegeen’s fears, acting as her protector. Shawn is the foil to any potential hero, displaying a cowardly disposition which will contrast with Christy on his arrival.
Pegeen laments the lack of heroes in the community, asking where “now will you meet the likes of Daneen Sullivan” who “knocked the eye from a peeler,” or Marcus Quin, who would “tell stories of holy Ireland till he’d have the old women shedding down tears about their feet.” Shawn says timidly that perhaps it’s for the best that those characters are no longer around—Father Reilly wouldn’t appreciate their way of “walking around talking to the girls.”
This is an early introduction of the power of language in the play, in this instance specifically of stories and myths. It shows that the village community in general is hungry for tales of heroism, especially those that relate to Ireland. Shawn links criminality and heroism together with sexual attraction, knowing that he cannot compete with the above and again appealing to religion as the true authority; Pegeen doesn’t share this view.
Pegeen is annoyed by Shawn’s constant talk about Father Reilly, asking how she’ll “pass these twelve hours of dark, and not take my death with the fear.” Shawn offers to fetch Widow Quin, but Pegeen doesn’t want to spend time with “the like of that murderer.” Shawn, trying to sound soothing, says he’s sure that Pegeen’s father will stay with her.
Pegeen is, in a way, deliberately testing Shawn’s character, who is failing miserably to show that he has any courage at all. Widow Quin can be assumed by the audience at this point to have killed the aforementioned Marcus Quin.
Shawn adds that, on his way to the pub, he heard a man groaning in a ditch “like a maddening dog,” and that it’s probably for the best that Pegeen is on guard. Pegeen sharply questions Shawn, asking why he didn’t investigate. Shawn admits he was afraid of the “dark lonesome place,” and asks Pegeen not to mention his cowardly behavior to her father or his friends.
Michael, the pub’s owner and Pegeen’s father, comes in. He is a “fat jovial” man and is in the company of Philly O’Cullen, “who is thin and mistrusting” and Jimmy Farrell, “who is fat and amorous.” All of the characters greet each other, saying things like “god bless you.”
Though the other characters are not as outwardly religious as Shawn Keogh, their speech is rooted in the Christian religion. “God bless you” is the usual greeting between them.
Michael asks if Shawn is going with him and the others to the wake, but Shawn replies that he is about to go home to bed. Pegeen complains to her father about being left alone all night; Jimmy interjects to say that a “fine, hardy girl” like her can handle herself. Pegeen says she’s afraid of the tinsmiths camping in a nearby field, and of the soldiery “walking idle through the land.”
The wake that Michael and company will attend is not going to be a somber affair, but a raucous occasion with drinking that will most likely last until morning. The soldiery referred to is perhaps a reference to men returning from the Boer War, in which some Irish men went to South Africa to fight against the English authorities (who also have dominion over Ireland).
Michael suggests that Shawn should stay the night. Shawn protests, fearing what Father Reilly and “the Holy Father and the Cardinals of Rome” would think of him spending the night alone with Pegeen before they’re married. Michael is irate and, having heard about “a queer fellow above going mad or getting his death, maybe in the gripe of the ditch,” insists that Shawn has to stay.
Here the audience gets a sense of the competing authorities at play in the village. Michael is trying to exert his authority over his future son-in-law, but Shawn is too afraid of religious judgment to assent to the demand. Michael’s mention of the man in the ditch heightens the sense of danger, again creating more space for heroism to eventually emerge.
Shawn tries to dodge past Michael to exit the pub. Michael grabs him by the coat. Shawn, screaming, tells Michael to let him go or “I’ll get the curse of the priests on you, and of the scarlet-coated bishops of the courts of room.” He slips out of his coat and runs out of the door.
This is a slapstick moment that colors Shawn’s character as buffoonish and leaves the audience in doubt of his devout religious beliefs.
Michael holds up Shawn’s coat, saying “there’s the coat of a Christian man.” He tells Pegeen that at least she won’t have to worry about other women trying to take Shawn from her. Pegeen criticizes her father for not employing a “penny pot-boy” at the pub who would make her feel safer. Shawn puts his head back in through the door, complaining to Michael that the “dying fellow” is following him and he runs inside.
Michael links Christianity to cowardice, which isn’t to say that they go hand in hand, but that Christianity does not automatically make someone brave. A pot-boy is a boy or man employed by a pub or inn to take care of some of the chores. This neatly develops a reason for Christy to be invited to stay.
Christy Mahon comes in, “tired and frightened and dirty.” He addresses the pub: “God save all here!” Christy asks if the “polis” often visit the pub; Michael says that they don’t, relieving Christy. The locals start speculating on why Christy is on the run, asking if he has committed “larceny.” Christy doesn’t know what “larceny” is, but, on learning that it means “theft,” he protests that he is the “son of a strong farmer.”
Christy arrives in a state of fear. He displays a lack of education in not knowing the word “larceny,” which also emphasizes his youthful naiveté. His reference to his father as strong is ironic, given that the audience soon learns that Christy has killed his father. “Polis” means police.
Michael, Jimmy, and Philly continue to eagerly question Christy, wondering if he had “followed after a young woman on a lonesome night” or killed a bailiff or landlord in a dispute. Christy denies all of these, adding that he’s never heard of anyone committing the crime that he has. Philly calls him a “puzzle-the-world.” The locals come up with further theories—all wrong—including that perhaps Christy has been fighting against the English in the Boer War.
The locals at the pub are evidently intrigued by Christy and his need to escape from the law. Because they don’t respect the “polis,” anyone who rebels against those authorities is likely to win their respect. The explicit mention of the Boer War situates the play in the early 1900s, but also carries with it a gesture towards the Irish conflict with their English authorities.
Pegeen doesn’t think Christy has done anything: “a soft lad the like of you wouldn’t slit the windpipe of a screeching sow.” She pretends to strike him with a broom, at which he reveals that he killed his “poor father” a week ago.” The locals are mightily impressed, assuming that he must have had “good reason” to do so.
Christy perhaps doesn’t intend to reveal his crime to the others, but Pegeen’s striking gesture reminds him of his fight with his father and, out of instinctive reaction, it makes him confess what happened. Pegeen’s comment highlights the fact that, though he is handsome, Christy doesn’t exactly seem the type to commit murder.
Christy explains that his father was “a dirty man…old and crusty, the way I couldn’t put with him at all.” The locals try to guess how Christy killed his father. Christy tells them that he hit his father over the head with a loy in a potato field and then buried him. Michael asks where Christy killed him, to which Christy replies vaguely that it was “a distant place…a windy corner of high distant hills.” Philly nods at the appropriately evasive answer.
The mention of the loy and the potato field gives a sense of the rural drudgery of Christy’s former life, hinting that his murderous act was in part an attempt to escape that world as much as it was an action of frustration towards his father. The villagers don’t take much convincing that Christy’s actions were justified, partly because the violence is overshadowed by the mythic qualities of the story Christy tells—that is, Christy’s deed is exactly the kind of thing that Irish poets or balladeers might have written about.
Pegeen, Philly, and Jimmy all agree that Christy would make an excellent pot-boy for the pub. Jimmy thinks the bravery of “a lad would kill his father” would make Pegeen feel safe. Michael offers him the job, promising “good wages.” Shawn tries to protest, but Pegeen shushes him. Christy accepts the job, happy to be “safe from the searching law.”
Christy is thus firmly placed in his role as hero, “saving” Pegeen from her fear of the long dark night. His act is directly equated with bravery, but it’s ironic that he’s the one to save her from her fear since he is also a confessed murderer.
Pegeen, feeling that Christy must be tired, insists that he stays the night. Jimmy is happy that she will be safe and implores Michael that they should head to the wake. As Jimmy, Philly, and Michael leave, Michael asks Christy his name, before departing with the words “god bless you Christy.”
The men can now go to the wake reassured that Pegeen will be safe under Christy’s protection, which shows how their values are deeply anti-police and shaped by Irish mythology. Without those counterbalancing influences, Christy would be the type of person from which Pegeen would need protection.
Shawn sheepishly asks Pegeen if she wants him to stay and keep her “from harm.” She sharply tells him to go off to Father Reilly and “let him put you in the holy brotherhoods and leave that lad to me.” She hustles him out of the door.
This is too little too late for Shawn, who had earlier been adamant that he wasn’t able to stay with Pegeen. She throws his religion back at him, much preferring to be in Christy’s company than his.
As Christy looks at his blistered feet, Pegeen wonders if he had “great people” in his family. Christy says his family used to own “wide and windy acres of rich Munster land.” Pegeen calls him handsome, which Christy is surprised to hear. Pegeen thinks he’s feigning surprise and has been telling his story to “young girls or old” all over the “world.”
Christy insists that this is the first time he’s spoken about killing his father, telling Pegeen that she is “a kindly woman.” He says he’s “seen none the like of you the eleven days I am walking the world.” Nodding with approval, Pegeen tells Christy that she thinks, if he wasn’t so tired, his “talk” would be the match of any poet. She’s heard that poets are like him, “fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused.”
This is the beginning of Christy’s courtship of Pegeen, which is intimately linked to his growing confidence. This confidence is exemplified by his speech—his sentences start to be come longer and more poetic as he senses the grandeur that comes with his newfound status as a hero. Pegeen links his outlaw status directly with his poetic talk.
Christy asks Pegeen if she is single, and she pretends that she is not engaged to Shawn. He then talks more about his life, explaining that his father was bad tempered man. Up until now, continues Christy, nobody has really paid that much attention to him: “there wasn’t anyone heeding me in that place saving only the dumb beasts of the field.” Pegeen is surprised, thinking he would have been living like “a king of Norway or the Eastern world.”
The speed with which Pegeen is willing to mentally dismiss her engagement to Shawn exemplifies how her engagement to him is based on convenience and the simple fact that there has been, until now, no one better around. She listens to Christy’s story in rapture.
As Pegeen brings him milk and bread, Christy gives her more of a sense of the drudgery of his life, which was full of “toiling, moiling, digging” from “dawn till dusk.” His only “joy” was poaching rabbits in the night. His father, continues Christy, was a terrifying drunk who had estranged himself from all of his other sons and daughters. He would never give Christy any peace, which is why Christy killed him. Pegeen assures Christy that his new life at the pub will be peaceful.
Christy’s description of his father is later mirrored by his father’s description of him in Act Two. Here, Christy spells out the sheer boredom of life with his father, in which hunting rabbits was his only escape. It adds somewhat rational motive to his decision to slay his father.
There’s a knock on the door. Christy is frightened that it’s the peelers, but it’s Widow Quin. Shawn had bumped into her and asked her to come and take Christy to her house. Shawn and Father Reilly, she explains to Pegeen, were scared that Christy would be causing Pegeen trouble. Pegeen points to Christy, who is quietly enjoying his milk.
The peelers are the police, so named because they were first instated in Ireland by the English politician Robert Peel. For this reason, the police are equated with English authority and accordingly despised. Widow Quin’s arrival is Shawn’s attempt to interrupt what he knows will be the growing attraction between Pegeen and Christy.
Widow Quin is intrigued by Christy. She says, “it should have been great and bitter torments did rouse your spirits to a deed of blood,” and she notes that he looks more like he should be saying his “catechism” than “slaying” his father. Pegeen retorts that anyone can see that Christy is “fit to be holding his head high with the wonders of the world.”
Widow Quin is right to point out that the image of Christy eagerly drinking milk is quite at odds with the idea of him as a heroic killer. Pegeen shows that her affections for him already run deep by talking about him in her own poeticized language.
Widow Quin again insists on taking with Christy with her, pointing out that it’s “the like of you and me you’d hear the penny poets singing in an August fair.” Christy asks if Widow Quin killed her father too, and Pegeen interjects to explain that Widow Quin hit her husband, Marcus Quin, over the head with a hoe; he died from tetanus as a result.
Widow Quin feels an affinity with Christy because she, too, has committed murder (although Christy only thinks he has). She expressly links the act of murder with Ireland’s mythic culture, correctly describing what both she and Christy have done as the kind of thing that would be immortalized by poets. Stories and poetry thus act as a kind of de facto authority within this rural community.
Widow Quin, annoyed by Pegeen, states that she, as a widow who has also “buried her children,” is a better companion for Christy than “a girl the like of you [Pegeen] who’d go helter-skeltering after any man would let you a wink upon the road.” She goes on, warning Pegeen that “there’s great temptation in a mad did slay his da.” The two women argue, both grabbing hold of Christy.
The audience doesn’t learn anything further about Widow Quin’s burial of her children, but the mention of it highlights her as an isolated figure. As Shawn has already done, she equates the ability to commit murder with a kind of personal strength, which she in turn implies is sexually attractive.
Scornfully, Pegeen insults Widow Quin with rumors about her—including that she “reared a black ram” at her own breast and that she’s been intimate with a Frenchman in exchange for tobacco and a small amount of money.
The “black ram” story, in keeping with Synge’s desire for realism in the play, is based on a story told to him by one of his landlords. It paints Widow Quin as a kind of evil spinster undeserving of the archetypal hero, and speaks to the power of gossip and rumor in the rural Irish community.
Christy timidly insists that he will stay at the pub, as it is his duty as “pot-boy.” Widow Quin suggests that, in that case, she will stay in the pub too. Pegeen forces her out; as Widow Quin leaves, she warns Christy that “torment will await you here if you go romancing with her like,” deliberately letting slip that Pegeen is engaged to Shawn.
Widow Quin tries to stir up trouble and destabilize Christy’s growing affections for Pegeen. The timid way in which he insists on staying at the pub is intended as a direct contrast to his supposedly heroic deed, and hints that there might be more to the story than first meets the eye.
With Widow Quin gone, Pegeen insists that she isn’t engaged, and that she wouldn’t marry Shawn “if a bishop came walking for to join us here.” She makes up a bed for Christy and wishes him a good night rest and goes to another room. Christy lies down, feeling “immense satisfaction” that he has a “clean bed” and “two fine women fighting for the likes of me;” he wishes he’d killed his father sooner.