James Bryden, an Irish immigrant suffering from blood poisoning, is advised by his doctor to take a long sea voyage to recover his health. He decides that he would like to see Ireland again, and the doctor agrees that a long visit to Bryden’s native Irish village of Duncannon will speed his convalescence.
Bryden enjoys his return home. The cozy village is so different from his life in the Bowery of New York City, where he has a job in a barroom. As he grows stronger, he begins to appreciate the slow, deliberate rhythms of village life. Absent are the hectic, demanding city routines; people are comfortable and relaxed, although most are poor and have few prospects for improving their lives. They say little about themselves and want to know all about the United States, having heard of the high wages a man can make, even if the hours of labor are long.
A soothing sense of home spurs Bryden’s recovery. He is welcomed by Mike Scully, one of the few villagers who has prospered, who provides Bryden with a place to live. In truth, all Bryden wants is to be left alone. Gaining strength, he finds that he is not interested in the villagers. Both their troubles and their curiosity about him leave him unmoved. At such times, he feels that he belongs back in the Bowery, even if it is a slum, but his returning health is enough to keep him rooted in Duncannon. He is in no hurry to return to the rigors of his Bowery existence.
Satisfying his urge to exercise, and feeling the need for company, Bryden meets Margaret Dirkin driving cows home for milking. Her company delights him and relieves his isolation and loneliness. However, Margaret warns him that they cannot walk together without being observed; it is not the custom for men to court women so openly and she fears the community’s censure. They continue their romance, and it is soon understood in the village that they are to be married. With his savings in New York, Bryden knows he can set himself up in the village as a prosperous man. However, he chafes at the narrowness of village ways, at the priest who forbids his parishioners to dance and drink. Then Bryden receives a letter from a friend in the United States, and he is reminded of how free things are there. Even the smell of the Bowery, as Bryden remembers it, seems enticing—the noises, the hoards of people, the heady exchange of money, the politicians talking—all the busy life he thought he had left behind. Ireland seems bleak, ignorant, and servile compared with the United States. Bryden realizes that he cannot marry Margaret and that he must return to the Bowery. He hurriedly leaves Duncannon, and Margaret realizes that he will never return, although he promises to do so.
Bryden later marries and has children, but in his old age he thinks back to Margaret, to that simpler village life, to the home he cannot forget, and it seems that it is the only real thing he has ever possessed.