In Dublin, American writer Raymond Douglas is searching for rare books and finds a first edition autobiography of James Joyce. He buys it and leaves, and an elderly local man, Doone, stumbles into him. Douglas helps him up and Doone realizes who he is. He says that there's something beautiful and horrible happening and shows him to a theater. Douglas doesn't understand and Doone takes him into the pub across the street, and explains that the pub itself is its own kind of theater.
In the pub, Doone introduces Douglas to the other local men. The owner, Heeber Finn, proudly shows Douglas a rare show program from the theater, signed by the entire company and the author. Douglas shows him the book in return and has a drink. The locals, all men, are quietly talking and when Douglas half-sarcastically notes that it looks like a wild night, everyone grows silent. One of the men, Timulty, asks if he's serious and Douglas admits that he isn't sure.
Across the street, O'Gavin goes into the movie theater and one of the pub men goes inside to tell the others that O'Gavin has entered the theater. Doone insists on explaining what's going on, and says that they hold one of the greatest sporting events in all Ireland at the pub and at the theater. When Douglas expresses an interest, Timulty wonders about his qualifications and the writer says that he's written movie screenplays, and has been to two separate Olympics. Believing that he's the perfect participant, the locals explain about their sport: anthem sprinting. At the end of each movie, the Irish National Anthem plays. Any true Irishman, hating the song after the hundredth time, races to get out of the theater once it starts. The men hold races and the first one out of the theater after the anthem starts is the winner. Doone is the champion and O'Gavin his arch-rival. Intrigued, Douglas agrees to participate and Finn offers the theater program against the Joyce autobiography. Douglas agrees and everyone cheers him on as an Irishman in spirit if not blood.
At the theater, the owner shows them around and they explain how the spring works. O'Gavin is already inside, watching an Irish film starring the famous singer, Deanna Durbin. Back at the pub, the men wait for the end of the movie to approach and explain that there are teams of anthem sprinters across Ireland and in England and Scotland as well. With five minutes to go, the men return to the theater and take their assigned positions to monitor the spring. The audience members know all about the event and will stay out of the way. When Douglas inquires about handicapping, Timulty admits that they have their own methods: heavier jackets, different seating, and when all else fails, a few sips from a flask. He sends a man in to give O'Gavin two sips from a flask.
Doone takes his place in the theater and Timulty makes the final preparations. The bets are placed and Douglas bets on O'Gavin, the underdog. Deanna Durbin sings the final song and the movie concludes, and Doone bursts through the doors the clear winner. The national anthem begins but there's no sign of O'Gavin. The men go in and discover that O'Gavin is still in his seat, quietly crying. When they ask, he explains that Durbin's voice is the very same as his dead grandmother, and he couldn't bring himself to profane her memory by leaping up at the end of the song.
Douglas suggests that they rerun the race, and Finn admits that it was an act of God that stopped O'Gavin. They convince the protagonist, another spectator, to run the final reel. Since the audience has left, the other pub goers will sit down in their place. When Douglas points out that there's no one left to judge the race, they send one of their own out to hold the stakes and determine the winner. Finn offers Douglas a sporting chance and lets him change his bet, and Douglas bets on Doone.
The singing begins and Doone realizes that he can't bear to run out. He tells Douglas to spring and gives the writer his hat and coat. Douglas leaps up and runs out as the film ends, and easily emerges the winner. However, he discovers that no one has followed him out. He goes back inside and discovers that all of the men have burst into tears. Chuckling, Douglas sits down as they tell the projectionist to run the film again.