The short play is set in the Gillane family cottage near Killala Bay in the County Mayo. Michael, one of the Gillane sons, is set to marry Delia Cahel the very next day. Michael enters the cottage with Delia’s dowry in a bag, much to the delight of his parents, Peter and Bridget. When the young man notices a mysterious Old Woman is approaching their family home, they invite her in. At first, Michael is distrustful and remains close to the door, while his parents welcome the feeble stranger with open arms. The Old Woman speaks in an elevated and poetic way, recounting a tale of being evicted from her home, and how far she has traveled. Her reason for wandering is the fact that there are “too many strangers” in her house, and that they have usurped her land. Peter and Bridget start to speculate on the Old Woman’s identity.
The woman begins singing verses of Gaelic folk-songs, which captures Michael’s attention. She explains that the songs are about a young man who sacrificed himself for loving her. Even though Peter seems unmoved by her words, Michael is captivated as she tells him stories of all the young men who have gone and died in battle for her. The parents try to offer her something to drink or some money for her troubles, but she does not want any of it. She tells them she needs people to give themselves completely to her and her cause. When she goes to leave, Michael wants to accompany her, forgetting about his impending nuptials. The Old Woman then reveals herself to be Cathleen Ni Houlihan and she exits the stage.
As Bridget tries to snap her son out of his hypnotic state, his brother Patrick and fiancée Delia come into the cottage. Patrick informs them that the neighbors are about to enlist with the French, and Delia tries to persuade Michael not to do the same. However, Michael, who is still under the enchantment of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, rushes outside to follow her and fight for the cause of Irish independence and nationalism. The family is in dismay, and Peter asks Patrick if he has crossed paths with an old woman on his way back home. Patrick denies having seen an old woman, but says he’s seen a young girl with “the walk of a queen.”