The McDonald family, who live a hand-to-mouth existence following their abandonment by paterfamilias, the feckless Rory McDonald. Into their lives comes Brendan Courtney O’Brien, scion of a wealthy Irish family, who has fallen in love with the eldest of the McDonald children, Erika. Despite his background, Brendan has even less money than the McDonalds. As the black sheep of his family, he has lived a peripatetic life and scrapes a living buying and selling on the black market.
Through Brendan''s eyes we meet a succession of apparently aimless losers who hang around the decrepit hair-dressing salon which is the McDonald''s only source of income.
Erika''s younger brother, Jimmy, is something of a rebel, always getting into trouble. Eventually, his desperate mother sends him to a boarding school from which he escapes at the first opportunity. He wanders the byroads of rural Ireland before being recaptured.
Soon, Brendan and Erika''s wedding takes place, followed by a reception in McDonald''s salon. As Brendan surveys the guests, all relatives or friends of his new bride, he imagines how his own estranged family would see them.
The knives held like pencils. The ill-fitting suits. The faces. It was odd how you could tell a man’s background from his face. There was no poise about these faces. No poise and no swagger. None of the swagger of sailors in a fo’c’sle or men driving big trucks. Men who didn’t give a curse for God or man. None of the poise of men born to authority. Only a grey, frightened middleness. Afraid of poverty. Afraid of other people. Even afraid of the wealth they were greedy for. Afraid to spend it. Afraid to enjoy it.
Brendan and Erika set up home in a boarding house run by a malicious old landlady. In a bid to escape the grinding poverty in which they languish, the young couple join a travelling circus. Erika becomes a fortune-teller and Brendan sells small bottles of perfume to which he has added astrological predictions.
Meanwhile, young Jimmy has run away again and, serendipitously, ends up in the same circus in which his sister and brother-in-law are working. The three meet just as Jimmy is about to receive retribution from a hot-dog man whose wares he has stolen. Brendan rescues him and all three return to Dublin.
Erika''s mother has sold the hairdressing salon and is about to leave for England with her younger son. Brendan and Erika decide to join her, with Jimmy in tow. The novel ends just as their ship is leaving the dockside. However, one of the party is missing. Jimmy has decided to stay in Ireland and, as the ship sails out into Dublin Bay, he watches from the pier before turning to find his own destiny somewhere in "the far hills".