The play is set in Killala in 1798. The Gillane family are discussing the upcoming marriage between their son Michael and his fiancée Delia. Peter and Bridget are concerned with obtaining Delia’s dowry. They hear cheering outside but are unconcerned with its cause. Michael enters and tells his parents that he has visited the priest to arrange the wedding ceremony for the following day. He gives the dowry to his parents. The family is visited by a mysterious old woman. She tells them that her "four beautiful green fields" have been stolen from her. She sings about patriots who have died for Ireland and reveals herself as Cathleen Ni Houlihan. She tells them that many men have died for her and that more must make sacrifices in order to help her regain her fields and banish the strangers who stole them. Neighbours enter the house and Patrick tells his family that the French ships have landed at Killala bay. The 1798 Rebellion is taking place. Michael is enchanted by Cathleen's words and vows to join the French army, abandoning his parents and his fiancée despite their pleas. Cathleen leaves, saying that "They shall be speaking for ever, / The people shall hear them forever." Peter asks his son Patrick if he saw an old woman leaving, but Patrick tells him that he saw a young girl who had "the walk of a queen."
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