Monsignor Charlie Coen

Honored February 20, 2010 

“The Musical Priest” is both a classic Irish traditional reel and a fitting moniker for a beloved cleric who makes Irish traditional music real with every note he plays and every song he sings, Monsignor Charlie Coen. He is one of the most accomplished Irish traditional singers and concertina, flute, and whistle players in America, an equally revered music teacher and mentor, and an effective organizer and popular leader of sessions held at the Rhinecliff Hotel in Rhinecliff, N.Y., and then at the American Legion Post in Rhinebeck, N.Y., between 1988 and 2007. 

Born in 1933 on a small, self-supporting farm in Drimnamuckla, close to Woodford in southeast Galway, Charlie learned Irish music in and near the family home. His father, Mike, played concertina, “but it disintegrated,” he said. His brother Jack, older by eight years, started out on fife, and Charlie eventually followed suit. At age 13 he got his first tin whistle, and at age 20 he spent three months in England, where he purchased an old Wheatstone concertina. Soon he also owned a wooden flute, acquired for him by his oldest brother Paddy, who lived in London. Charlie learned a good portion of his repertoire and technique from his brother Jack in Galway and America and later from his fiddle-playing brother Tony (12 years younger than Charlie) on visits back to Galway. Such local musicians as concertinist Connie Hogan, flutists Tommy Gaffney and Jim and John Conroy, and fiddler Brod Stanley also heavily influenced Charlie, whose additional skill as a singer evolved from his warm, natural voice, keen ear for songs, and nine years of training in the seminary choir. 

In 1955, severe bouts of asthma on the family farm in Woodford finally convinced 21-year-old Charlie Coen to immigrate to America, where he worked as a hotel bellhop in the otherwise fresh-air Catskill Mountains of New York. Four years later he began his studies for the priesthood. Ordained in 1968, he became an assistant pastor at St. Paul’s and then at St. Joseph-St. Thomas’s on Staten Island, N.Y., where for 18 years he gave lessons in Irish singing to his parishioners’ children, ethnically diverse and inspired by his encouraging, patient style of instruction. The fruit of that musical labor of love can be heard on Father Charlie, a 1979 Green Linnet/Innisfree recording in which a combined choir of 43 children sings on his impressive solo debut. Three years earlier, Charlie and Jack Coen, who immigrated to America in 1949, recorded The Branch Line, a superb duet album of mainly East Galway music for Topic Records. And in 1977, Charlie appeared on an influential Rounder recording, Irish Traditional Instrumental Music from the East Coast of America

Recording The Branch Line was not the only highlight for Charlie in 1976. He did something that no one had previously done from America: win All-Ireland senior championships on three different instruments in the same year. He took home the top prize for concertina, tin whistle, and concert flute/slow airs. Charlie has won All-Ireland senior titles twice more for concertina and also once for sean-nós singing in English, giving him a total of six championships that make him one of the most successful competitors in the history of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. 

Also, during the summer of 1976 in Washington, D.C., Charlie participated in the Smithsonian Institution’s Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife, out of which came the impetus for Green Fields of America, an ensemble led by Mick Moloney. An original member of the group, Charlie performed twice with them on U.S. tours sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

From 1986 to 2008, Charlie was the pastor of St. Christopher’s in the Hudson Valley town of Red Hook, Dutchess County, N.Y. There, too, he has sown the seeds of Irish traditional music, especially among the young. Two budding players who gained expertise and confidence at Charlie’s sessions were fiddler and flutist Dylan Foley and button accordionist and flutist Dan Gurney, each of whom has won the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil several times. At St. Christopher’s, Charlie continued the long-running concert series he had begun at his two previous parishes on Staten Island. Among the performers he brought to those three parish halls were De Dannan, Clannad, the Dubliners, Cherish the Ladies, Chulrua, Barley Bree, Danny and Geraldine Doyle, Frank Patterson, Carmel Quinn, and Hal Roach. 

Monsignor Charlie Coen does more than save souls. He creates soulfulness. You can hear it in the music he learned in rural southeast Galway, and in the music he continues to perform, teach, and spread here. For more than half a century in America, including the years since he stepped down as pastor in 2008 (“I’m retiring, not disappearing,” he said at the time), Charlie has given his all to the Irish traditional music he grew up with and loves. His music speaks for his character, and vice versa, prompting the Irish Echo to choose him as its Traditional Musician of the Year for 2005. 

Charlie now lives in Greenville, not far from East Durham, N.Y., where he usually teaches at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in July. He has also taught Irish music at the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, N.C., and the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va. Charlie still says Mass when and where needed, and he has also resumed leading a session at the refurbished Rhinecliff Hotel. 

Perhaps the greatest musical accomplishment of Charlie Coen is not the recordings he’s made, the concert tours he’s done, or the impressive cache of All-Ireland medals he’s won. Instead, it’s the appreciation and passion for Irish traditional music he’s kindled in so many over the years. As a steadfast keeper of that flame, Charlie enters Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame with the profound gratitude of all those he inspired and continues to inspire. 

— Earle Hitchner, Irish Echo, the Wall Street Journal