New York's 1st Irish Theatre Festival: Jack Gleeson, who played King Joffrey in “Game of Thrones,” stars in “Bears in Space.”

Now in its ninth successful year, New York's 1st Irish Theatre Festival is growing rapidly. Expanding its presentations into Chicago and Connecticut, this year will be its biggest and best to date. Cahir O'Doherty previews the Irish festival that now signals the start of the fall theater season in New York City, and picks some of the highlights.

For years now autumn, and the start of the new theater season, has been heralded by the annual arrival of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival.

Now in its ninth year, the brilliant showcase of Irish theater under the direction of George Heslin will have its launch again this week at Mutual of America on Park Avenue, where the wrap around city views remind you just how important Irish culture still is to New York City.

The world’s only festival devoted exclusively to producing the plays of contemporary Irish playwrights, the launch is a who's-who of established and emerging Irish talent, a tribute to Heslin's vision that it keeps on expanding its reach.

The city itself has taken notice. Productions launched at 1st Irish are often picked up for commercial runs off Broadway. The media marketing value last year alone surpassed $1 million, and since its inception the festival has provided work and crucial exposure for hundreds of Irish actors, designers and directors.

You can't put a price on that kind of exposure or what it means to Ireland, but you can – if you're an Irish government agency and if you're smart – help to fund its operations and watch the dividends return.

That's why Mutual of America, the Irish Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Irish Consulate of New York, the Northern Ireland Bureau, the American Ireland Fund, Tourism Ireland and more have all come on board, becoming important festival sponsors.

Geographically, Ireland is tiny, an afterthought on the edge of Europe, but artistically its outsized contribution to world culture has been staggering.

No one knows this better than Heslin, who has stewarded the festival through its many incarnations with the steely determination that marks a visionary.

Festival Founder George Heslin.

Festival Founder George Heslin.

This week he will do again what he has done for much of the past decade – sing the praises of emerging Irish artists and provide them with a life changing forum.

Let's start with some of the highlights. Playwright Honor Molly's Crackskull Row features a gifted Irish cast that includes Terry Donnelly, Colin Lane, Gina Costigan and John Charles McLaughlin in an absorbing tale set in Dublin in 1999.

When Rasher Moorigan is finally released from prison for a monstrous crime he committed 30 years earlier, he travels down the back lanes of the dirty old town to visit his mother Masher, and together they confront the ghosts of the past and an uncertain future. Melding myth and reality, Crackskull Row runs from September 1-25 at the Workshop Theater Main Stage , 312 West 36th Street.

After its sold-out runs in Dublin, Edinburgh and London, the cult hit (read completely insane) Bears in Space arrives in New York with its acclaimed original cast, which includes Game of Thrones loathsome (and now poisoned) King Joffrey, Jack Gleeson.

Watch as two cosmonaut bears (who are also puppets) fly a spaceship toward the outer limits of the universe all the while being chased by villainous beings. The show plays at 59E59 Theaters from Tuesday, September 6 until Sunday, October 2 so get your tickets early because the Thrones fan base is one of the most obsessive in the world.

Also playing at 59E59s is Conor McPherson's suspenseful adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier short story, The Birds, which became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s eerie classic film of the same title.

Set in an isolated house where strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from flocks of attacking birds, when another refugee arrives it becomes clear they're all facing into a complete societal collapse. The Birds plays from Friday, September 9 to Sunday, October 2.

Scor is the name of the cultural wing of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). During the winter months when it’s too cold for a kickoff, the GAA clubs continue to compete for an All-Ireland champion’s title, but this time on stage.

In 2014 the first official GAA Scor competitions were held in New York. Now, for the first time ever, New York's groups will take their award-winning performances for all to see in GAA NYC Scor. The performance will be held at Symphony Space, 95th Street and Broadway, on Friday, September 9.

1st Irish, in association with the Irish Arts Center at 553 West 51st Street, will present How to Keep an Alien, a funny and tender new Irish play that follows Irish Sonya and Australian Kate as they try to show the Department of Immigration they have the right to live together in Ireland.

If you've ever tried to marry a foreign national you will nod in recognition of the Olympian effort -- and paperwork – that it takes. It debuts on September 15 and runs until October 1.

The Cure is the welcome one night only revival of Conal Creedon's redemptive voyage play. Actor Michael Mellamphy dives so deeply into his everyman character you wonder if he'll ever return. Along the way he paints an unforgettable picture of Cork City and the maimed men who often traverse it.

The show, directed by actor and playwright Tim Ruddy, plays for one night only at the New York Irish Center, 1040 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City on Thursday, September 15.

Great White American Teeth is playwright and actress Fiona Walsh's sweetly funny story of a childhood spent in a tiny Irish village dreaming of the topless towers of New York and the ever elusive Warren Beatty.

The lengths to which she's prepared to go to make her innocent dreams come true underscore the faith she has in the American Dream, particularly when it comes to disco and dentistry. Written and performed by Walsh, the show plays at the New York Irish Center on Thursday, September 22.

Legendary Irish director Joe Dowling will stage Afterplay, a late work by the Irish master Brian Friel that revisits the lives of two characters from Chekhov: Sonya the niece from Uncle Vanya and Andrey, the intellectual brother from The Three Sisters.

Have they moved on at all? Can you climb out from under inherited conditions? These and other searching questions are explored in a play that runs from Thursday, September 22 to November 6 at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea.

Writer and producer Turlough McConnell will present How the Nuns of New York Tamed the Gangs of New York, an evening of music, dance and story that celebrates the 200-year legacy and contribution of the heavily Irish Sisters of Charity of New York at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street on Sunday, September 25.

Finally, gifted Northern Irish actors Billy Carter and Geraldine Hughes will star in Wexfour, a tribute to the four award winning and internationally renowned Wexford authors John Banville, Eoin Colfer, Billy Roche and Colm Toibin.

Described by director Ben Barnes as, “short works illuminated by skillful writing” the staged readings will be followed by a celebration of Wexford in music and words with special guest performers at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza on Wednesday, September 28.

For a full list of details, performances, tickets and venues visit 1stirish.org.