The whole world finds a seat at Coogan's bar

March 17, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- This morning, when Peter Walsh opens his doors, another St. Patrick's Day will begin in the most open-minded Irish bar in Manhattan. A bar that features a Jewish doctor buying breakfast for anyone willing to recite a poem by W.B. Yeats, and a crowd of devoted neighborhood customers, who are, naturally, Dominican.

The scene at Coogan's is always a paradox, at once fiercely multicultural and fiercely Irish, so why should today be any different? For a decade, the bar has prospered in a neighborhood -- Washington Heights -- that is increasingly poor, black and Dominican. In the process, it has become one of the few places where the ethnic differences that often define New York melt away, like a pat of butter on a freshly baked shepherd's pie.

"On St. Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish, and we believe every day is St. Patrick's Day," says Walsh, Coogan's co-owner and a frustrated writer. "There's nothing new about it. For centuries, Irish saloons have provided a place for people to escape from the world and talk to each other as people."

But few taverns have applied that philosophy with the evangelical zeal of Walsh and his partner, Dave Hunt. Improbably, they have turned Coogan's, on the southwest corner of 169th Street and Broadway, into the place where the neighborhood comes to eat, entertain and -- above all -- make peace.

Walsh recently cleared up a dispute between a high-ranking police commander and a prominent New York politician by inviting the two together for drinks. State Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr. takes a table nearly every weekend to hear constituent complaints and interview candidates for judgeships. In 1992, when the police shooting of Jose "Kiko" Garcia touched off disturbances in Washington Heights, Coogan's was one of the few neighborhood businesses to stay open, and police, ministers and residents met in the bar's back room in a successful effort to quell the unrest.

Coogan's reach extends to foreign policy. Leonel Fernandez Reyna, now president of the Dominican Republic, plotted his campaign from a stool at the bar. For St. Patrick's Day 1996, Gerry Adams, head of the Irish Republican Army political arm Sinn Fein, visited the bar for a party in his honor, where he was greeted by Dominican children waving Irish flags.

"Their secret is they don't see Dominicans as different," says New York City Councilman Guillermo Linares. "David and Peter think we're dark-skinned Irish."

That said, the owners, both Irish-American, New York City natives, can hardly be called similar. Hunt is a 48-year-old redheaded teetotaler. Walsh is 51, going gray and rarely refuses a drink from his bartender. David remembers everything and keeps the kitchen humming. Sometimes, Peter can't remember last night. But in 1985, the two longtime acquaintances agreed ++ on the merits of opening a business in Washington Heights, which a generation earlier had been an Irish stronghold.

"As soon as Dave said, 'Let's open up an Irish bar in a neighborhood where the Irish are leaving and we might get killed,' I said, 'I'm in,' " recalls Walsh. "At least there won't be much competition."

Together, they have spent the past 13 years adding spice to a decidedly Irish atmosphere. The menu includes everything from corned beef and cabbage to Dominican pastelitos, or meat pies. The green walls carry Irish street signs and Kennedy campaign posters along with photos of the 1986 Mets and President Reyna.

"They have created a living room for the neighborhood," says Alistair Smith, their manager, who is Scottish.

The son of a liquor taster who didn't drink, Walsh grew up in East Harlem, spent time at five different universities on two continents, did an Army tour in Vietnam, acted, sang in a blues band in Dublin, and edited a book of poetry before starting Coogan's. "I still can't think of a more boring business than running a bar," he says.

Fortunately, Walsh thinks he is not a barkeeper but a professional host. He gives away drinks at the slightest prompting. He has donated some of the bar's space for a local acting group. Coogan's organizes Thanksgiving dinner and Halloween trick-or-treating for HIV-positive children from a neighborhood facility. And Walsh sponsors readings by local authors, including himself. His play, "The Castle Bar," is about the owner of -- what else? -- an Irish bar in a changing neighborhood.

"You call Peter in a pinch," says the principal of the nearby Incarnation School, Ted Staniecki Jr., "A few years back, we were robbed and vandalized, and Peter spent the night at the school to make sure it didn't happen again."

Politicians from former Mayor David Dinkins to Vice President Al Gore have come to the bar for fund-raisers.

"They are community activists," says Farrell, "who happen to be bartenders."

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