Ensconced on an Oriental chair in a fashionable Central Park West apartment, Tim Pat Coogan discreetly nurses a glass of ice-cold American beer, trying to warm the beverage to Irish pub temperature.
"Wouldn't you prefer a drop of Irish whiskey?" Coogan, the editor of one of Ireland's largest newspapers, The Irish Press, finally asks a reporter. Suddenly the burly man is on his feet and out of the drawing room in pursuit of a bottle of Paddy's Irish Whiskey conveniently tucked away in his luggage.
Back again -- this time with his blue eyes sparkling and shoes off -- Coogan appears alternately affable, sly, loquacious and angry. He pauses for a moment at an opulent Victorian window to search for the source of distant drumbeats on a balmy afternoon. Seconds later he is angrily denouncing America's apparent lack of interest in Irish politics.
"I'm overwhelmed by the affection toward Ireland I've seen displayed in the States," says Coogan, reflecting on scores of interviews and meetings during his month-long North American tour which crisscrossed the United States and Canada.
"But there's an ignorance of what's really going on in Ireland. Why do you suppose the papers aren't covering it?" he asks, frowning.
Without waiting for an answer, Coogan gives his theory.
Coogan says Americans are being exposed exclusively to the British version of Irish current events. He blames it on the fact that no American newspaper has stationed a full-time correspondent in Ireland. American editors have opted instead to base their men in London clutching a free pass for the ferry across the Irish Sea.
"People here find it hard to believe that a two-party democracy like Britian could be running a concentration camp in Northern Ireland," Coogan says seriously. "But they fail to remember that the British invented concentration camps a hundred years ago in South Africa."
The concentration camp Coogan is referring to is the Long Kesh prison, now known as the Maze prison, in Northern Ireland. Within its walls scores of IRA members are being held -- some on the basis of confessions, others for a variety of serious crimes, including murder. The inmates claim to be political prisoners, making such demands as the right to wear their own clothes, abstain from prison labor and freedom of association within the prison. The British prison authorities, however, say the IRA members are criminals and should be refused any special status.
"I'm not advocating releasing these fellows," says Coogan, sullenly gazing into his amber glass. "If you want to keep them locked up, well okay, but I don't think they ought to be humiliated . . . I don't see why they can't come to some agreement."
But Coogan admits that a peaceful agreement becomes more distant with each passing day.
A near-fatal hunger strike among many of the prisoners was aborted last December when a bogus agreement was signed by jailers and inmates. When conditions in the prison remained the same after the first of the year, two inmates renewed the hunger strike. The remaining IRA prisoners have vowed to add two men to the ranks of the hunger-strikers every two weeks until they die or British jailers agree to their demands.
In an attempt to help awaken readers to events in recent Irish history and to alert them to the increasingly tense situation in Northern Ireland, Coogan wrote a book last spring entitled "On the Blanket -- The H-Block Story."
The book hit the Irish bookstands like a bombshell.
Within days of publication the situation in the Long Kesh jail was being debated around the country. Sales climbed to an unprecedented 60,000 copies in six months. If sales records are correct, one in every 66 Irish people owns a copy of Coogan's controversial book.
No one was more surprised by the enormous popularity of the book than the author.
"It was only meant to be my contribution to the north . . . to take one thorn out of that bleeding body politic as it were," Coogan says. "I never expected all this. . ."
Observers say that the publicity generated by Coogan's book was partially responsible for the recent election of hunger-striking IRA member Bobby Sands to the Westminster Parliament. Sands, who is 52 days into his second hunger-strike (physicians say he may be within five days of death), agreed to stand for parliament when Irish activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey withdrew her name from the ballot to support the prisoner-candidate.
Coogan predicts that the May elections in the Republic of Ireland will also be affected by the controversy as the hunger-strikers inch closer to death.
"At this rate, we're going to have coffins coming out of Long Kesh by the time of the elections . . . and if we do . . . in the words of the poet, 'All hell will break loose,'" Coogan predicts with a visible shudder.
Ireland's one hope, according to Coogan, is with the United States. He says Americaans -- and Irish-Americans in particular -- must lean on the government to voice strong disapproval of the conditions in Long Kesh to the British.
Coogan spent a week in Washington recently charming and lobbying prominent politicians on Capitol Hill.
But in a country where Irish-Americans revel in their names rather than in Irish politics, Coogan's impact is uncertain.
"What we've got here basically is a human rights issue," Coogan insists in a throaty brogue. "These conditions wouldn't be tolerated on the continent. But in Ireland . . ."
"Americans can make all the difference," says the soft-spoken writer. "It's like being able to tell a friend when he's doing something wrong . . . America can do that with Britian, we certainly can't."