Gar O'Donnell - who lives with his father S.B. in 1960s Donegal - is preparing to emigrate to Philadelphia to live with his aunt, Lizzy Sweeney. The play takes place over the evening before his departure.
There are two actors playing two Gars - Gar Public and his alter ego Gar Private, who is only seen by the audience. Gar Private speaks the internal thoughts of Gar Public. Together they present “two views of the one man”.
At the beginning of the play Gar seems delighted to be leaving for Philadelphia. He cheerfully discusses it with the housekeeper Madge, who has been Gar’s mother figure since his mother died soon after his birth.
Through conversations with Madge, Gar Private and S.B. himself it becomes clear that Gar and his father have a strained relationship and neither has broached the topic of his departure.
A flashback lets us know that Gar has recently lost his love, Kate Doogan, to another man. This seems to have prompted his decision to go to Philadelphia.
Visitors call by throughout the evening - Gar’s friends ("the boys"), Kate Doogan, the Canon of the parish and Master Boyle, a local teacher. Through these visits we build up a picture of Ballybeg as lacking opportunity and spontaneity for the residents.
In Episode II the action flashes back to a visit from Gar’s aunt Lizzy and her husband Con. They are visiting the O’Donnell residence on a return trip from Philadelphia. We see Gar agreeing to go to live there.
It becomes clear as the play progresses that Gar is not entirely sure about leaving, also that S.B. is more worried than he lets on to those around him, including Gar.
9. The play closes with Private asking Public, “God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?” and Gar replying, “I don’t know. I - I - I don’t know.” The ending is ambiguous and we are left unsure whether Gar goes or not.