Tony Cummings reports on three priests from Northern Ireland who have become CD best sellers, THE PRIESTS
The staggering sales success of The Priests (number five in the UK album charts) with their self-titled debut album has well and truly shaken the music industry and particularly those who have long thought that religious music has no sales appeal in today's modern world. The brainchild of producer Mike Hedges, who has also worked with U2 and the Manic Street Preachers, the three middle-aged Roman Catholic priests do indeed seem the most unlikely of hitmaking acts. The Priests' uplifting renditions of Catholic favourites like "Ave Maria", "O Holy Night" and "Benedictus" have captured a worldwide audience and have shown that the one point one billion Catholics worldwide is a hugely untapped market.
The Priests consist of Father Eugene O'Hagan of the Parish of Ballyclare and Ballygowan: Church of The Sacred Heart and Church of The Holy Family, Diocese of Down and Connor; Father Martin O'Hagan of the Parish of Cushendun: Church of St Patrick (Craigagh), Church of St Mary, The Star of the Sea (Culraney), Diocese of Down and Connor; and Father David Delargy of the Parish of Hannahstown: Church of St Joseph and Church of St Peter, the Rock, Diocese of Down and Connor.
It was at St MacNissi's College near Carnlough in Co Antrim, where the trio met for the first time and began to recognise their musical prowess as a singing group. "Singing was the least manly thing to do at a boys' boarding school,' recalled Eugene, who has three sisters and another brother who has not followed him into the clergy. "I tried to play rugby but had two left feet." Nicknamed Holy Holy Holy by their peers due to their shared determination to enter the priesthood, it was a priest at their school who first noticed how talented they actually were. After leaving St MacNissi's, they followed their vocation training at The Seminary in Belfast, where Fr Eugene specialised in English and Scholastic Philosophy and Fr Martin and Fr David specialised in Ancient History and Scholastic Philosophy. During that time they all studied under the Belfast-based singing teacher Mr Frank Capper MBE.
concluded their training at the revered Irish College in Rome where Fr
Eugene studied for seven years, Fr Martin five years and Fr David for
Whilst in Rome Eugene took advantage of the fact that he was able to have signing lessons from Sergio Ballani. Almost immediately their combined and rare talent was recognised. They were invited in person by the Pope's private secretary, Monsignor John Magee (the Papal Master of Ceremonies) to sing for the Pope in the sacred liturgy.
The Priests' careers overlapped once again as they all eventually returned to Ireland, where they began their work in various special ministries. Each now lives the life of a full time parish priest, tending the spiritual needs of their parishioners and official duties at all church services including those to mark the christenings, marriages and funerals of members of their catholic community. It was record producer Mike Hedges who spotted The Priests' sales potential. A former Jesuit choirboy himself, Hedges' dream was simple: he wanted to record a commercially successfully version of the Latin Mass. He put his plan to Nick Raphael, MD of Sony's Epic Records, who, after much deliberation, sent out talent scouts to find suitable voices. It was the head of music at St Columb's College in Derry who recommended the O'Hagan brothers, Fathers Eugene, 48, and Martin, 45, both tenors, plus Father David, a baritone. Friends since they met at boarding school 35 years ago, the three had long enjoyed amateur singing in between their parish duties.
Signed to Sony Records The Priests' album was made with a huge recording budget (including sessions in Rome) followed by a David Bailey-shot album cover and a massive promotional campaign. Even with all that though, the sales 'The Priests' achieved has shaken the music industry with the album selling well over a million copies and in Ireland going quadruple platinum. Despite the publicity frenzy surrounding the trio, the group remain level-headed. Said Fr David, ""Showbiz life is only what you see through glossy magazines," Father David says gently. "I don't think that it's half as glitzy as presented. I guess they have challenges to their lives that we don't have - and those lives don't always bring happiness. I get the impression that people in the music business work very, very hard. Sony is a place full of human beings with mortgages, and with children to get up in the morning. It's stressful and pressurised and they eat at unusual times. Anyway, the only celebrities I have ever seen were in hotel corridors."
Recently the Sunday Times asked Fr David whether the process of making the album had involved any temptations? He responded, "Sometimes, you do have a 'grass is greener' experience. But life isn't a bed of roses, whatever path you take; and as life goes by, you grow into your life. I have always been secure that this was what God was calling me to do." Father Eugene, who seems more intrigued by the showbiz world, insists that he is content with the path he chose at 18. "I listen to, and have read about, the careers of many singers and actors. Like us, they incorporate their gifts into the humdrum of life. At the end, none of us can live at the height of the mountain all the time. Anyway, sometimes the humdrum is quite pleasant." The opportunity to sing to a wider audience has come about by divine providence, he believes. "We look at things through the prism of faith. An opportunity comes your way - and it doesn't occur for no reason. You take a risk. Sometimes, the opportunity is worth it, because it is enriching."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.