The Keeners examines the Irish potato famine and its consequences through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Margaret Meehan. An independent young woman, she is apprenticed to Nuala Lynch, who is passing on to her the ancient tradition of keening, or chanting laments for the dead. As the novel opens, Margaret is in love with Tom Riordan, a handsome young rebel, and her best friend, Kitty Dooley, is newly married with a baby on the way. There are high hopes of a successful potato harvest after a poor one the previous year.
However, as the potato blight worsens and entire crops rot overnight, food goes from scarce to non-existent, and Margaret and her family and friends are reduced to boiling nettles to make soup. Starving families roam the countryside begging for food from people who have none, and the dead begin to outnumber the living. Margaret's family, with the exception of one brother, all succumb to the famine, and her best friend Kitty loses her sanity. The deaths are so rapid and pervasive that even keening is suspended.
Tom becomes a wanted man and the couple must immigrate to America, settling in the Irish community of Troy, New York, where Tom toils in the ironworks and Margaret in a collar factory. Both work hard and make a decent life for themselves and their children in their adopted country, where they are active in the emerging labor movement.
The Keeners brings to life one of history's most tragic episodes, giving the reader a greater appreciation both of the suffering caused by the potato famine, and the challenges faced by Irish immigrants in nineteenth century America.