The High Priest of Trad

For many years one of my favorite ways to pass a Sunday afternoon was to pop along to the venerable Irish hooley known as Father Charlie's Rhinecliff session. On the banks of the Hudson River, about two hours north of NYC in the back room of the old crumbling Rhinecliff hotel beneath one bare light bulb, Father Charlie Coen, now Monsignor, hosted and performed with the cream of visiting Irish musicians. Everyone came, and many credited Charlie as one of their first inspirations. These days the hotel is an upscale watering hole that has long seen us off, but Charlie is still going strong, and I recently sat down to play and chat with the man himself. Tell us about your early days, and how you started playing. I was born and reared in Woodford, a small town in East Galway. We lived on a small farm - father, mother and nine siblings. The older members had moved away before the younger ones were born. My father, along with his brothers, father and uncles, were what were known as "calf jobbers." They went down to the dairy country of Kerry and south Limerick, bought young calves and brought them back to Galway and sold them. They brought them back by railway and walked them from the closest station, about fifteen miles. Our farm was mostly self-sufficient, we had a little of everything - wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, vegetables, chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, a horse, an ass, a few cows and calves, a goat and pigs. In winter it was dark after four o'clock, and the long nights were conducive to music, dancing and storytelling. Heating was poor, with only one fire in the kitchen, so we danced to keep ourselves warm. Going to bed in the unheated rooms with temperatures below freezing was something best forgotten about. Torture. Several of the family played music; my brother Jack was the first to start and he must be credited with the rest of us having a go at it. When did you come to America? Jack came to America in 1949, my sister Ann came the following year, and I came in 1955 at the age of 21. I had bought a concertina in London, where I worked for a few months, and was able to play a few tunes when I got here. Jack and myself played quite a bit together, mostly by way of him teaching me tunes. He had the great gift of being able to accurately retain everything he ever learned. I can't say I was so gifted! Jack played a lot for ceilis with Larry Redican and Paddy Reynolds and others. Then Paddy O'Brien, the accordion player, came on the scene, and he and Jack played a lot together, so I got to play with them fairly often. Your 1976 recording The Branch Line with Jack is a hugely influential record, with many great players crediting it as their first inspiration. Tell us a little about that. In 1976, I came to know Mick Moloney, a great all-round musicologist from County Limerick. He was putting together a group of 25 musicians to perform in Washington for an event sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute called "Old Ways in the New World." We were joined by another 25 musicians and singers from Ireland and had a wonderful week. From this developed a group known as "The Green Fields of America." Mick then suggested that Jack and myself make a record. The Branch Line was rather unusual in that it was recorded in one night in Jack's living room, with scarcely any cuts or repeats. Jack had been working all day and had just arrived home when Mick arrived from Philadelphia with a small recorder loaned from the Smithsonian. It was all done in a few hours. I later recorded an album with Green Linnet on which are some songs sung by a group of children from the first two parishes, on Staten Island, that I served in - St. Paul's and St. Joseph and Thomas. The record was titled Fr. Charlie. Have you won many All-Ireland Championships? The children I taught were mostly responsible for my entering the music competitions, although I must say I enjoyed competing. The children insisted I enter; they derived some morose delectation from hearing the judges critique the performance. I think I was lucky to be competing at a time when the standard was not so high as it was later. Perhaps I was also helped by the fact that I am seldom nervous in front of a crowd. I don't know what accounts for that fact, unless maybe my theological discipline of being satisfied with who and what I am, once I have done my best. I think the standard of traditional music at the present time is fantastic, especially among the young folk. What are some of your fondest musical memories, and some of your own favorite performers and influences? I have much to be thankful for to all the musicians who influenced me along the way, beginning with the musicians in my home town of Woodford, Jim and Johnny Conroy and Tommy Gaffey, flute players; Brod Stanley, John Conroy and Michael Joe Tarpey, fiddlers; Connie Hogan, concertina; The Ballinakill, Abbey and Killimor ceili bands. From the radio, Leo Rowsome was the king on the uilleann pipes. In New York there were many - Sean McGlynn, a great friend and accordion player; John Browne, a cousin, was a great fiddler, as were Paddy Reynolds, Andy McCann, Larry Redican; Felix Dolan on the keyboards. The one I most enjoyed playing with, sadly recently deceased, RIP, was Joe Madden on the accordion. Joe had wonderful "heart" in his music and had wonderful tempo for dancing. Joe invited me to play in his band at the Irish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. I was delighted, as it was the first time I had played in a big band. I played once with the New York ceili band at the United Irish Counties Feis. We got a first, of course. I like to kid them that that was the only time they got a first, vanity of vanities! I really enjoyed playing with Joe Madden - he had a great repertoire of East Galway tunes, and he was always good for a laugh. He was always very encouraging and really enjoyed playing. He will be sadly missed. You recently retired from your parish duties. What do you have in mind now? Well, the above has been all about music, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention something about the most important aspect of my life, priesthood. I have greatly enjoyed my 40 years as a priest and would choose it all over again. I often think of a man I met in Lorrha last year who was speaking about the poverty of his youth. "All we had was music, hurling and the faith." I never really understood until after I became a priest how important the faith was and is to people. It gives them peace and strength and hope and reason to live. I never played a tune that caused people to seriously change their life or lifestyle; but I have had many a one come up to me, some even years later, to tell me how some sermon I had given had saved their marriage, or had an effect on their families or caused them to turn their life around. In fact, every day in the priesthood something like that is happening, and what can be better than helping people find meaning in their life - a meaning that is not temporary but eternal. I retired from the responsibility of being pastor of a parish when I reached the age of 75 this past July, but I hope to continue being active and helping out wherever needed. I hope to continue playing a tune also and maybe have a little more time for that now.

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