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The Singing Priests

They were at school together, then at seminary and now they sing to audiences across the world and have recorded three albums. Joanna Moorhead meets The Priests.

Back in the 1970s the music teacher at a Catholic secondary school noticed a trio of pupils with voices that blended together so harmoniously that she suggested they should form a group. The three youngsters were known for their devotion they were even nicknamed ‘holy, holy, holy’ by their fellow students – but even so, no-one could possibly have imagined that, 40 years on, all three would be ordained clerics or that they’d still be performing to rapturous audiences across the world.

Meet Father Martin O’Hagan, his brother Father Eugene O’Hagan, and their former school chum Father David Delargy, three of the most delightful interviewees imaginable. If obstreperous and self-centred rock stars have given music PR a bad name then the Priests are the group that could turn the boat around: they are gently charming, genuinely self-effacing, and when we meet before an appearance in London they seem to have all the time in the world to chat. Not for them the need to spend hours in a dressing room: the Priests sing in their dark suits and dog collars, wherever they’re performing.

And they’ve certainly sung at some top-class venues. It was five years ago that they were ‘discovered’, explains Father David, who grew up in Ballymeena in Northern Ireland Father Eugene and Father Martin grew up in Derry. ‘We’d been singing together since secondary school, and we were quite well known in Ireland, so when someone came looking for a priest who could sing to make an album, our names inevitably came up,’ he explains. ‘They hadn’t been looking for a group, they were thinking just one priest but when they heard us and they heard our story, they decided to vary the plan and to make an album with all of us.’

That decision led to the formation of the Priests, and to their eponymous first album, released in 2008. It made platinum in the UK, Ireland, Sweden and Norway, as well as gold in several other countries; and a second album, entitled Harmony, was released in 2009 and went to platinum in Ireland and gold in the UK. Another album, Noel, released at Christmas 2010 also held its own in the charts and there’s a tour of the US planned for later this year.

It’s all exciting stuff and, the three priests admit, it feels a lot more manageable than their initial blast-off into the musical stratosphere. ‘The beginning was just mind-boggling,’ says Father David. ‘It was like being swept up into a whirlwind everything that happened seemed more exciting and more extraordinary than the one before. It felt like a dream.’ After signing a £1 million contract with Sony BMG¹s Epic records (all proceeds from their music go to charity) the priests went on tour across the globe, crossing Europe before moving on to Canada, the US and Australia. And in the UK and Ireland, too, there were many appearances, and the foundation of a big fan-base (even as we’re talking, prior to them performing, a small knot of supporters is gathering to say hello and ask for their autographs).

Their parishioners back home in Northern Ireland might have felt short-changed at losing their priests to the music industry but, says Father David, not a bit of it. ‘The people of our parishes were absolutely delighted for us when everything took off,’ he says. ‘No-one saw it coming, so it was a big shock for them as well as for us, but they were so proud of us. I think they felt we were putting their parishes on the map. There was a huge amount of interest in where we were and what we were doing.’

Today life is still busy but it’s calmer than it was in the early days. And, say the Priests, they’re happier for it. ‘We’ve got a much better balance, because we’re able to do our singing, which we love, but we’ve also got plenty of space for our parish duties and for our parishioners,’ says Father Martin. Both he and Father David are parish priests (‘and we don’t have assistant priests,’ points out Father David) while Father Eugene is chancellor to the bishop of Down and Connor.

The O’Hagan brothers grew up in a big, musical family their mother, a nurse, always tried to take music onto the wards, says Father Eugene and as children they’d often sing with their three sisters and older brothers. ‘We had the whole Von Trapp experience, though we didn’t wear the curtains,’ he quips. Then it was on to boarding school in Antrim where they teamed up with the then teenage David Delargy, whose baritone voice worked well with the tenor O’Hagans. ‘We’d be in Gilbert and Sullivan shows together, and we performed at music festivals,’ says Father Martin, who says he’s always been keen on opera but these days likes artists like Paloma Faith and Duffy; Father David, meanwhile, confesses to being a Tina Turner fan, and says he’s always got time to listen to Bruce Springsteen.

After school they might have gone their separate ways; but instead all three ended up at Queen’s University in Belfast, where there were plenty more opportunities to sing: and then, after graduation, came the realisation that not just one, but all three, men felt called to the priesthood. Did they never feel the pull of music was stronger? ‘There were some moments of doubt about whether to go down a different direction,’ says Father Martin candidly. ‘But having the mix of music and priesthood was always very much of an advantage, and it’s been lovely to be able to savour both elements of life.’ Father David agrees: ‘Combining the priesthood with a musical career has been hugely enriching,’ he says. ‘I never felt called to music as a professional, but I did feel called to performing and it’s always been an important part of who I am.’ And for Father Eugene: ‘I think the call to the priesthood was that bit stronger and I always felt good about being able to combine my musical gifts and bring them with me into the priesthood.’

After seminary all three men studied at the Irish College in Rome, where there were lots of momentous opportunities to sing, including at St Peter’s for the Pope. ‘We got several chances to sing there, including for Pope John Paul II who we each met,’ says Father Eugene.

Many years of combining their priestly duties with amateur singing followed and, says Father Martin, one thing they hope their story proves is that success doesn’t necessarily come about instantaneously, and it may take many years of hard work before you hit the jackpot. ‘We’re in a good place to encourage others to realise that, while TV programmes like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are great, for many artists it takes many years of hard work before you get the pay off,’ says Father Martin. ‘We hope others will see us and realise that our long years of commitment to music did eventually pay off,’ says Father Eugene. ‘Instant success may happen to some, but for many people it’s about sticking with something, and slogging away at it.’

So what’s next? Well, there’s the US tour later this year; and further on the horizon, the exciting possibility of a movie about the priests’ lives and their music. And, of course, a fourth album is somewhere in the pipeline. But most importantly there’s the priests’ work in their parishes and, in Father Eugene’s case, the diocese. ‘It’s the most important part of our lives,’ says Father Martin. ‘We’re priests first and foremost, after all.’