The following evening, it is raining outside as Sarah and Owen sit in the schoolroom—Sarah with a book in her lap and Owen with his map. Both are distracted and look towards the stairs. Manus descends with a bag of clothes and begins urgently selecting books from around the room as Owen reflects on a place called “The Murren” being a corruption of “Saint Muranus”; Owen believes they should return to the original name. Manus attempts to tie his bag of clothes shut but everything spills out instead. With Manus close to tears, Owen runs to get him a different bag. Sarah attempts to speak to Manus but he ignores her.
Manus’ entrance and distraught manner suggests that he knows about Maire and Yolland and will be leaving Baile Beag. The presence of rain contrasts with the summer heat present in Acts One and Two and reflects the darkened tone of the play from this moment on. Owen’s desire to revert “The Murren” to its “original” name reflects that even Irish place names are often a corruption—or a translation—of something that came before.
Manus asks if Owen will be around a while longer, and he instructs Owen to tell those in Inis Meadhon—where he has been hired to start a new hedge school—that he still wants the job but will be gone for three or four months. Owen says Manus is being stupid and suggests that, by leaving Baile Beag now, Lancey will think he is “involved”—in what it is not yet clear. As such, Owen encourages Manus to wait a few days, asserting that Yolland (who it becomes clear at this point has gone missing) probably just went to visit one of the islands or got drunk and the search party will find him soon enough.
It gradually becomes clear to the audience that Yolland has mysteriously disappeared and that Manus is leaving Baile Beag for a period of time to avoid being implicated. Owen recognizes that his leaving could of course have the opposite effect.
Manus reveals that he had planned to violently confront Yolland the night before and was holding a rock in his hand when he saw Yolland standing on the side of the road smiling with Maire. At that moment he lost the will to get close to the couple and instead “shouted something stupid” in Irish—meaning Yolland did not even understand the insult; instead, he simply kept repeating, “Sorry?” It was “the wrong gesture in the wrong language,” Manus notes.
Manus has spoken in Irish in front of the British soldiers throughout the play as a means to assert his identity and resist colonialism. It is the ultimate insult in this moment, then, that his final attempt at rebellion is completely misunderstood by Yolland; Manus seems to recognize that he has lost not only Maire, but also the fight against British oppression.
Manus again asks Owen to give his message to Inis Meadhon; Owen repeats that it will be suspicious if Manus leaves now, so Manus turns to Sarah, who says she will give the message for him. Manus says he is going to Mayo, and leaves Owen detailed instructions for helping Hugh get by without him. Owen asks about Maire and offers Manus money, but Manus ignores both gestures. Before leaving, Manus addresses Sarah but without the “warmth or concern” he showed in Act 1. Sarah recites her name and where she lives, then begins to softly cry. Manus says she did “no harm” and kisses her head “as if in absolution.” He leaves as Sarah repeats that she is sorry.
Manus lacks the kindness, hopefulness, and enthusiasm he displayed towards Sarah in the beginning of the play. His language here, though nearly an exact repetition of his words in Act One, now reveals his sense of defeat and despair. This reflects Hugh’s earlier assertion that words are dependent on their context— that they are merely signals. The context of Manus’ world has changed entirely, making his language take on different meaning.
Owen asks Sarah if there is class tonight and where Hugh is. She mimes rocking a baby, but Owen does not understand the gesture. Bridget and Doalty enter loudly and say that fifty more soldiers have arrived and are looking around extremely closely. They say that Hugh and a crowd “from the wake” were in the pub and went outside when they heard the soldiers making a commotion. Hugh started shouting at the soldiers that they were things like “huns” and “vandals.” Jimmy simply shouted “Thermopylae!”
Sarah makes the same gesture she made for Manus in Act One—here, however, she is saying that Hugh is at a wake rather than a christening. This again reflects the notion that language is dependent upon its context. Thermopylae refers to the famous battle in which three hundred Spartans ultimately faced off against the Persian Empire. In Jimmy’s formulation, the Spartans represent the Irish standing strong against the British. The Spartans were defeated, however, and Jimmy’s shout reveals his obsession with the past to the point of making himself irrelevant.
Owen asks Bridget and Doalty if they saw Yolland and Maire leave the dance together. They confirm that they did, but that they did not see them return. Bridget says she did not see Manus following them but saw him returning alone later. Owen asks if they saw Manus stay until the end of the dance, but they don’t know anything; Owen says he is asking because he knows Lancey will question him once he finds out that Manus has left. Bridget insists she knows nothing about Yolland and that Owen should ask the Donnelly twins. Owen asks about the Donnellys, insisting Yolland is his friend and he wants to know what happened, but Doalty is evasive. After more prodding Doalty swears he knows nothing apart from the fact that he saw the Donnellys’ boat at the port on his way to the dance and it was not there by the time he left.
The possibility of Yolland simply being lost grows increasingly unlikely, especially upon Bridget’s mention of the Donnelly twins, who have been suggested to be associated with illicit anti-British activities throughout the play. Doalty reveals that the twins’ boat was no longer at port, which makes Yolland’s fate appear all the more grim.
Maire enters carrying her milk can, clearly in distress. She asks if Owen has heard anything. She says that Yolland dropped her at home and mistakenly said in Irish “I’ll see you yesterday” instead of “tomorrow,” then went off laughing. Maire says Yolland is from a small place called Winfarthing and drops to the floor to point it out on Owen’s map. She points out the surrounding towns, deeming their names very odd but nice sounding, “like Jimmy Jack reciting his Homer.”
Yolland’s final moment with Maire is again one in which communication transcends language. Maire’s recitation of English place names reaffirms that the English language sounds just as odd to the Irish as the Irish language sounds to the English.
Maire insists Yolland would not just leave, and as such that something must have happened to him. She looks at her hands and is ashamed of their roughness; she hopes she won’t have to work with hay in Brooklyn. She asks if everyone heard about Nellie Ruadh’s baby, who died in the middle of the night. She says she must go to the wake and leaves.
Maire’s assertion that Yolland would not leave her implies that he has been killed. Meanwhile, the death of Nellie Ruadh’s baby represents the death of the Irish language and culture in the face of colonial oppression.
Doalty agrees with Owen that Manus was a fool to leave and that the army will be after him. Lancey enters and tells Owen he will address the class, each member of which must then pass on what he says. With Owen acting as his translator once again, Lancey says they are looking for Yolland, and if they don’t find him within twenty-four hours they will shoot all the livestock in “Ballybeg” until someone comes forward. After that they will evict residents and destroy their houses. Owen protests, but Lancey tells him to do his job and “translate.” Lancey begins to list the townlands they will destroy, using their English names. Owen uses their Irish names as he relays the information to the others.
Lancey has abandoned any attempts to portray the presence of British soldiers as beneficial to the Irish. Instead, he asserts the might of the British colonizer. The fact that he scolds Owen reveals that Lancey sees Owen as an Irishman and not an equal, regardless of how much work Owen did for the British. Owen’s use of Irish place names is a subtle rebuke of Lancey and an attempt to reassert Irish identity.
Lancey points at Sarah and shouts at her to tell him her name. She tries frantically but cannot, so Owen answers for her. Doalty looks out the window and calmly says that Lancey’s camp is on fire. Lancey asks Owen who Doalty is and where he lives; Owen tells him the Irish name of Doalty’s home, but Lancey insists on knowing “what we call it.” He tells Owen he carries responsibility in all this and exits.
Owen again attempts to undermine Lancey by saying the Irish name of Doalty’s town. Lancey’s response, however, again asserts the might of the colonizer over Ireland.
Bridget confuses the smell of burning tents with the “sweet smell” of potato blight, then runs off to hide her animals. Owen tends to Sarah, insisting she was only frightened and her speech will come back. Sarah emphatically shakes her head and leaves.
The “sweet smell” again foreshadows the potato blight that will devastate Ireland—and, presumably, spell the end of Baile Beag—in a few years’ time. Sarah’s ultimate inability to speak, presumably ever again, represents the ultimate silencing of the Irish people by the British.
Doalty says “they” did the same thing when his grandfather was young, and laments how Owen is being treated after all the work he has done. Doalty declares that if they stuck together they could defend their land and that “the Donnelly twins” could fight against a trained army. He says he “might know something” about their whereabouts after Owen talks to Lancey, then he leaves.
Doalty reveals that the British have treated the Irish poorly for a long time, and that many Irish people refuse to give in regardless of the strength of their enemy. His parting words seem to solidify the suspicion that the Donnelly twins were involved in Yolland’s disappearance, and that it was motivated by the twins’ anti-British sentiment.
Owen puts the Name-Book on top of a pile. It falls to the floor, and he decides to leave it where it is. He goes upstairs as Hugh and Jimmy Jack enter, both drunk. Hugh talks as if the class were full, calling on students as usual to identify the Latin origins of certain words as he speaks. He reveals that, at the wake, the Justice of the Peace told him that a schoolmaster from Cork had been appointment to the national school.
Owen has lost faith in the mapping project. Hugh has become a tragic figure, having lost his students and job by clinging to the Irish language.
Hugh shouts for Manus to bring him tea. Jimmy says he is marrying Athene and he and Hugh jokingly talk about the wedding. Jimmy becomes more serious as he says he needs companionship and suddenly begins to cry. He then drunkenly falls asleep. Hugh picks up the Name-Book that had fallen to the floor as Owen enters with two bowls of tea. Hugh reads the English names aloud, but Owen snatches the book out of his hand calling it “only a catalogue of names.” He then calls it his “mistake” and tries to wake Jimmy.
Hugh and Jimmy’s drunken interaction shows that Hugh does not yet know that Manus has left, and that Jimmy’s obsession with the past veers into delusion. Owen definitively rebukes his involvement in the Ordnance Survey, though his dismissal of the importance of the Name-Book rings hollow; he knows now, more than ever, how important names are to the establishment and preservation of identity.
Hugh points to the book and says they must learn the new names for “where we live.” He says that people are not shaped by the “literal past” but rather the “images of the past embodied in language.” They must continue to renew those image or risk becoming fossilized. As Owen leaves to look for Doalty, Hugh tells him that it is “a form of madness” to remember everything.
Having lost nearly everything, Hugh has finally accepted that, in order for Irish culture to survive, his people must find a way to express themselves in the English language. His final words to Owen suggest that it is not wise, nor possible, to preserve every element of the past, and that some things must be forgotten in order to move forward.
Hugh looks at the sleeping Jimmy and reminisces about the twenty-three miles “to Sligo” they marched going into battle in 1798—both with “the Aeneid in their pockets.” Hugh had recently married his now deceased wife. He points out the heroism of having to leave her as well as his infant son. Upon stopping in a pub, however, grew homesick—just like Ulysses—for their “own” and dreamed of “older, quieter things.” They marched back.
Hugh is referring to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against the British. Ulysses refers to the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, who spent ten years trying to return home after the Trojan War. Hugh has dreamed not of a life of violent rebellion, but of simply being able to preserve his home—which is threatened by the destruction of Irish language and culture.
Maire enters, saying she left but couldn’t remember where she was going. Hugh says he will teach her English, starting after the funeral. He warns her not to expect much, and that even with the “available words” and “available grammar” she may not be able to “interpret between privacies.”
Hugh reflects the play’s theme of the limits of language; there is more to mutual understanding than simply knowing the right words to say, and sharing a spoken language does not guarantee that communication will occur. The fact that he won’t begin working with Maire until after the funeral again connects Nellie Ruadh’s baby to the Irish language, which Hugh would like to lay to rest before moving on to teach English.
Maire asks Hugh what the English word “always” means. Hugh translates it from Greek and Latin, and says it is a “silly word.” Maire insists that when Yolland returns he will come “here,” where he “was happiest.”
Maire is referring to the word Yolland said to her before his disappearance. Hugh has already asserted that words are not “immortal,” which is why he considers “always” to be a silly concept.
Jimmy has awoken and sits beside Maire. He explains that in Greek “endogamein” means “to marry within the tribe,” while exogamein means the opposite—and that crossing “those borders” makes people angry. He muses whether Athene is mortal enough or he godlike enough for their marriage to “be acceptable” to their respective communities.
Jimmy’s words reflect not just his imaginary marriage to Athene, but, of course, Maire and Yolland’s relationship.
Hugh begins to recite the story of an ancient city that Juno loved above all others and had wanted to be “the capital of all nations.” But the Trojan race sought to overthrow “these Tyrian towers” and proud kings sought to bring about “Lybia’s downfall.” Hugh’s words get confused, and he says he will begin again. The lights begin to dim as he repeats the story, about the goddess Juno who loved one city above all others. Yet proud Trojan kings were born who would “come forth for Lybia’s downfall.” He trails off and the stage goes to black.
Hugh is reciting from Virgil’s epic Latin poem The Aeneid, which tells the story of how refugees from the fallen city of Troy founded Rome. It is unclear if Hugh means for the Irish to be the Romans—a people group who will rise from destruction to conquer the world—or if they are Lybia, destroyed by the might of the Roman Empire, here representing the British.