Jack Coen was born in 1925 in Woodford, County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, the second of nine children. His family operated a subsistence farm and earned money from raising cattle. When he was a child, Coen says, “If the boys and girls wanted to dance, they’d come to our house. My father [Michael Coen] played a concertina … he was the only musician around that village. It was the poor people’s entertainment in Ireland.”
When Coen was about eight years of age he received a tin whistle for Christmas. This instrument, combined with the old-fashioned tonic sol-fa system of sight singing he learned in the village school, taught him the rudiments of traditional music. At 16, he adapted his tin whistle skills to the fife; he joined the “local defense force” and became a member of its parish fife and drum band. There the band’s senior members tutored him on the wooden flute, though he was probably most influenced by his neighbor, Jim Conroy.
After Coen finished school, he continued to practice the flute, playing first on borrowed instruments, then on one he bought in a Dublin pawnshop. By then, he was playing regularly in public and supporting himself with farm and road work. In 1949 he moved to the United States, intending to earn more money and return to Ireland. For the first six months, he lived with an uncle in the Bronx. From there, he moved to a thriving Irish community in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where he worked in a produce market. During this period, he didn’t play his flute much, except for an occasional party or with another flutist who worked near him.