Monday, September 06, 1999

Paul Meehan's Cell

When it came to finding inspiration for the characters in her prison drama, Cell, writer, Paula Meehan had plenty experience working with prisoners to draw on. Meehan conducted workshops in prisons up and down the country from the mid-eighties, up until the mid-nineties.

Her work includes leading creative writing workshops in Shelton Abbey, Arbour Hill, Portlaoise and Mountjoy, where she worked with both men and women. But it was with Mountjoy’s women inmates that she found the greatest connection.

“I come from what is now called the north inner city, although we used just to call it town,” says Meehan “And a lot of the women I worked with in Mountjoy were from that same background. I mean a lot of them might have been the daughters and the granddaughters of people I grew up with.”

Not all of the characters Meehan created, however, were inspired by prisoners. Indeed, Meehan says during her time working in prisons she “did not come across people I would describe as evil, people with an evil intent in the world”. So when it came to creating one of her main characters - Delo, played by Eithne Guinness, a viscous and abusive drug dealer who terrorises her fellow cellmates -- she had to look elsewhere for inspiration.

In the end, Meehan decided to base her personification of evil on a teacher she encountered as a schoolgirl. “She was a nun who taught me -- and tortured me -- when I was young.”

The play, which starts previews at the City Arts Centre tonight, tells the story of a group of cell mates, three of whom are Dubliners imprisoned for heroin-related offences, and one of whom is a quiet-seeming middle-aged country woman who has just been convicted of murder. The advent of this older woman effects the delicate balances of power of the tiny room where the four women are locked. At first her influence is subtle, but as time goes on her ways of thinking have a dramatic impact.

“I wrote the play out of a sense of compulsion, a sense of rage “about the women I met in Mountjoy,” says Meehan. “They were talented people with raw, native intelligence who had just been dumped.” But writing a work of propaganda did not interest the writer. “When you sit down to write, you have to kind of leave that behind you and let the characters tell the story,” she says “When I write I want to make a discovery rather than reiterate what I already believe.”

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