When Charlie Coen decided to study for the priesthood in 1958, he carried into the seminary a reputation as a concertina, tin-whistle and flute virtuoso. Ten years later, as Father Charlie Coen, the music remained a major part of his work. Taking up residence in a Staten Island, N.Y., parish, he taught Irish music to children, and convinced them to enter the annual New York Irish music competitions. Father Charlie, as he's known, went further by setting an example as a competitor himself; soon he became the Senior All-Ireland concertina champion in 1974, '76 and '77, adding flute and tin-whistle titles in 1976 and a vocal championship in 1978 as well.

Father Charlie says "it's probably unusual" for an active priest to be so involved in non-religious music. "I'm sure other priests would be involved in different ways, as teachers or choirmasters, but the type of music I'm involved with is a little unusual . . . not to the point of being sinful," he quickly adds in the delightful brogue that testifies to his emigrating here 26 years ago at the ripe age of 21.

Coen, who grew up in a family of musicians whose house was the social center of Wooford in Galway County, is quite proud of his work with parish youth. "I have nearly every ethnic group represented. It's all Gaelic to them. Different ethnic groups pick up the language better than Americans and get the feel of it better: Spanish, British West Indies, Philippines -- they're born to the rhythm."

Father Charlie, who will perform solo at American University's S.I.S. building lounge at 3 this afternoon, has retired from competition. "You get tired after a while and like to pass it on to someone else," he says. And that is one of the charms of Irish music.