Old Jack and Mr. O'Connor warm themselves by the fire in the committee room. Jack is old, hairy, and gaunt; Mr. O'Connor, though young, is gray-haired. His face is marred by acne. He's rolling cigarettes. Mr. O'Connor was supposed to canvass one part of the ward with flyers for Mr. Richard J. Tierney's election campaign, but due to the rain he's spent most of the day in the Committee Room with Jack. Jack is complaining about his son, who's taken to boozing in a serious way.
Mr. Hynes, a young man not working for the campaign, comes in. The three men talk; it becomes clear that Jack and Mr. O'Connor are working for pay and not for political reasons. The talk turns to politics, and Hynes speaks passionately about the working man. He does not like Richard J. Tierney; he claims that Tierney is going to greet King Edward when the British monarch next visits Ireland. Mr. O'Connor at first denies it (Tierney is on the nationalist ticket), but when Hynes says to wait and see, O'Connor concedes that it's possible. But what concerns him most remains the same: "Anyway, I wish he'd turn up with the spondulics [the money]" (119). Mr. Hynes displays the ivy leaf on his coat collar, a symbol commemorating Charles Stewart Parnell. He praises Parnell, and the other men agree that he was a great man.
Mr. Henchy comes in, saying that there's no money for them yet. They discuss the voters they've been talking to, trying to convince them to vote for their man. Mr. Henchy complains about Mr. Tierney's trickiness, and doubts that his hard work will be remembered. Mr. Hynes leaves. Mr. Henchy asks what Hynes wanted; O'Connor thinks kindly of him, but Henchy thinks Hynes is a spy for Colgan, the other candidate. Old Jack thinks so too, but O'Connor is more inclined to think of Hynes kindly. Hynes is a good writer, with a political bent. Mr. Hency thinks that some of these hillsiders and fenians (the enthusiasts for the Nationalist cause) are in fact informers for the British ("in the pay of the Castle").
Father Keon enters, searching for Mr. Fanning, the sub-sheriff. They direct him to the Black Eagle. The men chat about him: the priest has gotten into some sort of trouble with Church authorities, either because of his politics or his alcoholism.
Mr. Henchy is mainly disappointed because he wasn't the promised beer Tierney is supposed to send to them. Tierney was in a meeting with an alderman, but Mr. Henchy kept discreetly reminding him about the promised drinks. Mr. Henchy complains bitterly about the corruption he sees in city government. He jokes that he'd like to be a city father himself, so that he could grow fat off the bribes of candidates. They enjoy spinning out a scenario with Mr. Henchy becoming mayor, with O'Connor as private secretary, Jack in a powdered wig, and drunken old Father Keon as the private chaplain. Old Jack tells Henchy that he'd be more stylish than the current mayor. A boy arrives with their bottles of beer. They send the boy back to fetch a corkscrew, and when he comes back they let him have a bottle himself. They make small talk, asking the boy his age (17), and then the boy quickly drinks and leaves.
Henchy complains about Crofton, one of his coworkers, saying he's not very much help as a canvasser. Crofton, a very fat man, then comes in accompanied by Lyons, a young man. Crofton and Lyons insult Henchy's canvassing methods lightly, and Henchy criticizes them in turn. The boy took the corkscrew back with him, but they open beers for the newcomers by putting the bottles onto the fire until the corks pop out.
Mr. Crofton sits silently once his bottle has popped; he considers his companions beneath him. He was with the Conservative party, but when the Conservatives withdrew their man he decided to work for Tierney, as Tierney seeming to him like the lesser of two evils. Lyons' bottle pops, and now everyone is drinking. Henchy talks about trying to get votes from people who normally vote Conservative; he aimed at selling Tierney's character, and his fiscal conservatism despite his Nationalist affiliation. Mr. Lyons asks about the impending royal visit. Henchy says that a royal visit will stimulate the economy.
Mr. O'Connor is against a royal visit. He begins to invoke Parnell, but Mr. Henchy says that Parnell is dead. Mr. Crofton nods. Mr. Lyons begins to harp on King Edward's womanizing, but Mr. Henchy defends the King as being just a normal man like everyone, fond of drink and the ladies. Lyons points out that the country turned its back on Parnell for an adulterous affair. What becomes of their ideals if they now welcome a womanizing King just because his visit stimulates the economy? The issue is evaded. O'Connor doesn't want to stir up the issue on the solemn occasion of Parnell's death. Crofton says that the Conservatives respect him now, after his death, because at least he was a gentleman.
Mr. Hynes comes in. They welcome him, offering him booze, and then Mr. Henchy points out that Hynes never abandoned Parnell, even when the Catholic Church and every other Irishman did. Mr. O'Connor entreats him to recite the poem he wrote on the occasion of Parnell's death.
Hynes solemnly recites a short, earnest poem mourning the death of the great Irish Nationalist leader. The poem is very critical of those who betrayed him, including the church. It claims a place for Parnell among the great ancient heroes of Ireland.
There is brief silence and then applause. Hynes' bottle pops open. Mr. O'Connor is deeply moved, and rolls cigarettes to hide his emotion. Mr. Henchy asks Crofton what he thinks of it. Mr. Crofton says that it's a "fine piece of writing" (133).
Background on the politics of the day is prerequisite to understanding this story. Charles Stewart Parnell was a political hero to the Irish nationalists of Joyce's time. He died on October 6, 1891, becoming a martyr for the cause of Irish independence. His memory figures prominently in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the title of this story refers to Ivy Day, the day commemorating Parnell's death. Parnell was the leader of the Irish Nationalists, who sought legislative independence for Ireland. But Parnell lost support because of an adulterous affair. The Church leaders of Ireland condemned him, and consequently he lost the support of many Irish Catholics. Afterward, Parnell attempted to continue to work for the cause, but he died the next year of stress and exhaustion.
Joyce juxtaposes the sharp and real divides between nationalists and conservatives to the large amount of apathy many of the men exhibit. A key issue in the story is the lack of inspiring leaders. We learn that Jack and Mr. O'Connor are working for money and the promise of free booze rather than any real political devotion to Mr. Tierney. Throughout most of the story, Mr. Henchy spends far more time worrying about the promised booze than the does worrying about the election's outcome. The problem is that the candidates, now that Parnell is gone, seem to have no great focus. Tierney is a leader Conservatives feel comfortable voting for; his politics are watered down, far from the fiery and inspiring vision of Parnell. As a realistic goal, Irish nationalism seems lost without its charismatic champion. Canvassers try to lure voters to their candidate by making claims about his character, or promising that his program will not shake up the status quo.
The portraits of the men are critical and intelligent. The effect is more humorous than cruel, but the story contributed to difficulties in publishing Dubliners. O'Hynes poem, though a touch corny, is also deeply earnest; Mr. Crofton's reserved and evidently insincere response underscores the fact that Ireland is a country divided, even against itself. Ivy Day is so called because the mourners at Parnell's funeral wore bits of Ivy; O'Hynes is wearing it here. But the title is ironic. The committee room is full of men of divided loyalties, whose only goal of the moment is to drink their beer.