It is an afternoon in August of 1833 in the Irish-speaking town of Baile Bag in County Donegal, Ireland. In a hedge school situated in an old barn, Manus, a lame man in his late twenties or early thirties, is teaching Sarah, a waif-like young woman with a severe speech defect, to say her name. In the corner is Jimmy Jack Cassie, a bachelor in his sixties who loves reading Homer aloud in ancient Greek. With Manus’ steady encouragement, Sarah is able to say her name.
Manus wonders where Hugh, his father and the school master, is. Sarah mimes rocking a baby and drinking, which Manus understands to mean that Hugh is at a pub following a christening. Maire, the local twenty-something milkmaid, enters and ignores Manus’ attempt at a greeting. She and Jimmy have a brief conversation in Latin before Maire comments that she is even worse in English—a theatrical conceit becomes clear in this moment that the characters on stage are actually speaking Irish, even as an audience hears English. Doalty and Bridget, two more students in their twenties, enter noisily. Doalty brags that whenever the Red Coats put a surveyor pole down, Doalty moves it a few paces to assert “a presence.” Bridget asks if anyone knows the name of Nellie Ruadh’s baby, who was christened earlier that day. Maire tells Manus that he needs to apply for a job at the national school soon opening because it will put the hedge school out of business. To Maire’s frustration, Manus refuses because Hugh wants the job. Bridget notes the new school will teach only in English. Hugh—a dignified yet shabbily dressed man who has clearly been drinking—finally arrives. As he addresses the class, he quizzes students on the Latin and Greek origins of certain words. Maire declares that they all should be learning English instead. Hugh brushes her off, noting that he has been asked to take over the new national school and run it as he sees fit.
Hugh’s younger son, Owen, who has been living in Dublin for the past six years, enters. Manus attempts to talk with Maire, who coldly says he talked of their marriage once but, with the end of the hedge school, will soon have nothing. Owen then introduces everyone to Lieutenant Yolland and Captain Lancey, British soldiers in charge of mapping the Baile Beag area and for whom Owen is an interpreter. The stern, middle-aged Lancey then asks Owen—whom he mistakenly calls “Roland”—to translate as he addresses the group in English, saying that the British government is creating a new, comprehensive map of Ireland. Owen simplifies Lancey’s grandiose language and makes it more palatable to the locals. As the others mingle, Manus confronts Owen about this, calling the project a military operation and demanding to know what’s wrong with their current place names. He also asks if Owen will tell the soldiers that his name is not Roland, but Owen insists he is the same man regardless of what he is called.
A few days pass, and Owen and Yolland work to anglicize place names by approximating English sounds (“Cnoc Ban” would be “Knockban”) or translating the Irish to English (“Cnoc Ban” would be “Fair Hill”). They then put the names into a “Name-Book,” which is used for labeling new anglicized maps. While the two work in the hedge school and drink poteen, Manus enters. He refuses to speak in English in front of Yolland, much to Owen’s annoyance. Yolland, oblivious, excitedly reveals he has been picking up some Irish words. Manus says men like Yolland confuse him and leaves. Owen reveals that Manus is lame because Hugh fell across his cradle when Manus was a baby. Yolland then asks Owen about the Donnelly twins, whom he says Lancey wants for questioning. Owen nonchalantly responds that the twins are fisherman. Yolland then asks about a nearby house that often has music coming from it. Owen responds that it is Maire Chatach’s house.
When Hugh enters, Yolland remarks on the fascinating etymology of Irish names. Hugh tells Yolland that he must remember that words are only “signals” and do not last forever. Hugh leaves to see the local priest, though Owen warns that with all the new place names, he may get lost. Yolland declares that their project is eroding something in Irish culture. Owen grows frustrated with Yolland’s romanticizing of Irish and tells the story of Tobair Vree, the name of a crossroads that derives from “tobair”—meaning well—and a corruption of the Irish name Bhriain. Owen believes Tobair Vree has already been “‘eroded’ beyond recognition.” Yolland insists they preserve the name anyway, asserting that is what Owen—whom he calls Roland once again—wants, too. An angry Owen shouts that his name not Roland. The absurdity of the situation causes the men to suddenly explode in laughter.
An elated Manus enters and says he has been offered a job to start another hedge school. Maire arrives with a milk delivery. When Manus exits with his milk, Maire says there is going to be a dance tomorrow night at Tobair Vree and tells Owen to inform Yolland. Manus returns and offers to walk Maire home, but she decides to stay and have a drink. A drunk Yolland joyously recites the Irish words he has learned. Music swells, and the stage goes to black.
The following night, Maire and Yolland run on stage laughing and holding hands, having just left the dance. The two have a romantic scene in which neither understands what the other is saying. Regardless, they both repeat—in their respective tongues—that they simply “love the sound” of the other’s speech. Yolland eventually begins listing the Irish names he has learned through his work, reciting them to Maire as if they were a love letter. Yolland says he wants to live with Maire “always.” She wonders what “always” means. They kiss. Sarah enters and, upon seeing them kiss, runs off shouting for Manus.
The following evening, Sarah and Owen sit in the schoolroom. Yolland has disappeared. When Manus enters with a bag of clothes, Owen tells him that by leaving now, Lancey will think Manus is involved in Yolland’s disappearance. Manus reveals that he shouted at Yolland the night before upon seeing him with Maire. Before leaving, Manus addresses Sarah but without his earlier warmth. Sarah recites her name and begins to cry that she is sorry.
Owen asks Sarah where Hugh is. She again mimes rocking a baby, but Owen does not understand. Bridget and Doalty enter saying that more soldiers have arrived. Owen asks if they saw Yolland and Maire leave the dance together. Bridget says Owen should talk to the Donnelly twins. Doalty adds that he saw the twins’ boat at the port on his way to the dance but that it was not there by the time he left. A distressed Maire enters, insisting that Yolland would not just leave, and that something must have happened to him. 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.
Lancey enters and says if the soldiers don’t find Yolland within twenty-four hours, the soldiers will shoot all of the Baile Beag livestock. After that, the soldiers will evict residents and destroy their homes. Owen protests, but Lancey tells him to do his job and translate for everyone. Lancey then shouts at Sarah to tell him her name. She tries frantically but cannot. Doalty says that Lancey’s camp is on fire. Lancey tells Owen he carries responsibility in all this and exits. Bridget then runs off to hide her animals. Owen tends to Sarah, insisting she was frightened and her speech will return. Sarah emphatically shakes her head and exits.
Owen exits as Hugh and Jimmy Jack enter, both drunk. Hugh reveals that he learned at the wake that a schoolmaster from Cork had been appointment to the national school. Jimmy drunkenly falls asleep. Hugh picks up the Name-Book as Owen returns with two bowls of tea. Owen snatches the book out of his hand, calling it his “mistake.” Hugh points to the book and says they must learn the new names of where they live. Owen leaves to look for Doalty.
Maire enters. Hugh says he will teach her English, starting after the funeral. He warns her not to expect much, however, and that even with the right vocabulary and grammar, certain things will forever remain opaque. Maire asks what “always” means, but Hugh responds that it is a “silly” word. He then begins to recite from the Aeneid, telling the story of how the Romans destroyed Carthage. He trails off as the stage goes to black.