Maurya has lost her husband, and five of her sons to the sea. As the play begins Nora and Cathleen receive word from the priest that a body, that may be their brother Michael, has washed up on shore in Donegal, the island farthest north of their home island of Inishmaan. Bartley is planning to sail to Connemara to sell a horse, and ignores Maurya's pleas to stay. He leaves gracefully. Maurya predicts that by nightfall she will have no living sons, and her daughters chide her for sending Bartley off with an ill word. Maurya goes after Bartley to bless his voyage, and Nora and Cathleen receive clothing from the drowned corpse that confirms it is their brother. Maurya returns home claiming to have seen the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley and begins lamenting the loss of the men in her family to the sea, after which some villagers bring in the corpse of Bartley, who has fallen off his horse into the sea and drowned.
This speech of Maurya's is famous in Irish drama:
(raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people around her) They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me.... I'll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I'll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. (To Nora) Give me the Holy Water, Nora; there's a small sup still on the dresser.