Laoisa Sexton and Aedin Moloney star in “Cell” by Irish poet and playwright Paula Meehan

There are a lot of things that get discreetly hidden away in Ireland. Take poverty statistics, for example.

Did you know that Ireland has the highest percentage of people living in relative poverty in the entire European Union – or that the stark gap between rich and poor there is the most pronounced of any nation in Western Europe?

You won’t find that information in the tourist brochures. It just doesn’t square with our sense of ourselves, but those are the facts.

Another thing that gets inexplicably hidden away in Ireland are the challenging works of the country’s women playwrights and writers (the “Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing,” released in the early 1990s, originally omitted women from the entire literary canon without noticing).

Far too often in Ireland it’s the boys who hog the limelight (often literally) and all the glory that goes with it. Irish women writers usually have to wait (and wait) for their turn.

Take Paula Meehan, for example. Although renowned in Ireland, next week will see her first full scale production in New York in years.

Meehan’s play “Cell,” which will be staged as part of the first Irish Theatre Festival from September 8-20, tells the extraordinary story of four working class Dublin women, all mothers, whose lives and destinies are shaped by the deprivation of their own communities.

Meehan’s on home turf with this material. The award-winning playwright hails from inner city Dublin and she knows its hopes and fears intimately.

Presented by Ireland’s Fallen Angel Theatre Company, artistic director Aedin Moloney (daughter of the Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney) tells the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.com that the company was set up expressly to present the new plays written by female British and Irish playwrights in New York.

“The wealth of new female writing in England and Ireland has largely been untapped in New York,” says Moloney. “Fallen Angel Theatre is the first American company to present the work of Irish women writers that have never been performed in the United States.”

On her first read of the script of “Cell” Moloney was deeply impressed. It was dark material but it was also hilarious, a very Irish combination.

“She delves into the darkest parts of people’s lives and souls. There’s such grace and poetry and humor in the play too, it’s extraordinary,” Moloney says.

“Meehan’s writing about the sort of people that most people would avoid if they saw them coming. They’re a group of inmates in prison. Paula worked with women like this at Kilmainham Jail in Dublin and her experience comes from a real place.”
In her plays Meehan consistently tackles the kind of subjects that most people would be too embarrassed to address publically.

“They’re a real challenge, these characters. They talk about poverty and the darker side of Irish life. It’s not pretty. There’s abuse, violence and drug addiction, but the play is also about motherhood too.”

The play is set in the claustrophobic Dublin jail, where the power struggles of the outside world are replicated among the women in prison -- ferocious daily battles to become and stay top dog animate each of them. But besides being a keen observer of working class inner city life, Meehan is also a gifted poet, with all the clarity and critical distance that implies.

Says Moloney, “I know the subject matter of ‘Cell’ sounds so dark, but there’s something very beautiful about the play too. It’s a play about what actually happens in Ireland.

“I mean I want to entertain people, but I want them to laugh and cry and be horrified in the one evening. The character I’m playing in the show is one of the darkest women I’ve ever come across, but even so you can see where’s she’s coming from. You can see what has formed her and made her the way she is.

“It’s not light entertainment, but it is hilarious, and the fascinating thing is that it’s also real.”

Directed by John Keating, a distinguished Irish actor who is well known to patrons of the Irish Repertory Theatre, the focus of Fallen Angel’s work is always on the writing.

“Forget the actors and directors, it’s the writer who is the heart and soul of any Irish theatrical performance, without that you have nothing. The writing has always been my love and fascination,” says Moloney.

“There’s a mine of Irish writing by women new on the scene who are making terrific work now. We want them to be seen here.” 

“Cell” will be performed at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, New York. For tickets call 212-868-4444.