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Irish Voice Entertainment
The Singing Priests
October 22, 2008
When Sony BMG Records scoured Europe for clergymen with the talent to record a new album, word of mouth eventually led them to three priests in two tiny Northern Ireland villages. A $2 million recording contract followed and The Priests were born. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Father Eugene O’Hagan, one of the group’s members.
ALTHOUGH their story reads like an idea for a film script, in the sleepy little towns of Ballyclare and Ballygowan in Northern Ireland, no one was surprised when the news broke about the three priests.
After all, they’d been listening to all three singing in their respective churches for decades. But out of the blue one-day last April things took a dramatic turn.
In a short ceremony on the steps of London’s historic Westminster Cathedral, Father Eugene O’Hagan, 46, his brother Father Martin O’Hagan, 45, and Father David Delargy, 44, announced Sony BMG Records had signed them for $2 million.
From that day on, they told the assembled press, they would be known as the singing group The Priests. Now their debut album is set for U.S. release on November 18, and PBS will broadcast their live concert on November 29.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the fairytale aspects of this story that startled the locals in Ballyclare and Ballygowan. The thing they couldn’t get over was the amount of money involved in the contract.
Not surprisingly, since April life has changed quite a bit for the three parish priests. Flying around the world, facing the press and giving interviews in the swank Parker Meridian hotel in midtown Manhattan is a far cry from the humble round of the other parish priests in the area, but O’Hagan sees no contradiction.
“We’ve always sung since we were kids at school and what happened was that all three of us in our own turn went into the seminary,” O’Hagan tells the Irish Voice. “Over the years our lives overlapped and we’d often meet up to sing together. But the fact is we’ve been singing since we were children.”
It was at college near Carnlough in Co. Antrim back in the seventies that Father Eugene and Father Martin first met Father David and realized their prowess as a singing trio. Years later they performed as students at the famous Irish College in Rome, where they were nicknamed Holy Holy Holy by their snickering peers, but it was another Irish priest at their school who first noticed how talented they were.
That led to an invitation in person by Pope John Paul II’s private secretary, Monsignor John Magee (the papal master of ceremonies) to sing for the Pope in the sacred liturgy.
“We’re all middle aged now, so we’re not a boy band obviously. We didn’t just walk away from our parishes and make an album,” says Father O’Hagan, laughing.
“It must be said that Sony have very accommodating when it comes to us prioritizing our responsibilities as priests, so we work around that. Weddings, funerals, baptisms. You don’t leave your parish, your collogues and a bishop behind. That’s not the way it works.”
One thing is for certain — they’re going to become huge international stars. Sony BMG affiliates in 32 countries including the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Brazil and the Philippines have already agreed to release their debut album without hearing the first note.
Now Radiohead’s string arranger is on board, as is famed photographer David Bailey, who has taken the cover photos. Their new manager Sam Wright can count Eminem, Marilyn Manson and Jon Bon Jovi among her former clients.
Behind all the glamour they’re still priests, of course. They really look like priests.
And from the beginning Father O’Hagan insisted that his focus as a priest would not change. In fact he was cautious about the idea of making the album at all.
But he was reassured when Sony indicated a large degree of flexibility about their commitments. And since they first signed on the priests themselves have started to actually enjoy the work.
Says Father O’Hagan, “It’s been quite a steep learning curve and this has been an amazing journey thus far. We’ve met some wonderful people, many of whom have never had occasion to meet a priest before, so it’s been enriching for us. Many who have met us accidentally may now see another side to the church.”
Bailey is a good example of the kind of man who wouldn’t ordinarily encounter men like Father O’Hagan and his singing group mates. At his photo shoot he asked the three priests what three grown men like themselves were doing still believing in God. They didn’t flinch at his provocations.
“I think it has been an enriching experience both ways,” says Father O’Hagan.
On their debut album The Priests also worked with the legendary Mike Hedges, who has produced albums for bands like U2 and The Cure. It’s a striking contrast to the three parish priests from Northern Ireland.
“Since Mike’s at the stage where he can choose his projects, he actually chose to work with us,” says Father O’Hagan. “He attended a Jesuit school in Zambia years ago and he remembers so much about it. At this stage in his life he wanted to capture some of those experiences though this beautiful spiritual music.”
Their first album will include Catholic favorites like “Ave Maria,” “O Holy Night” and “Panis Angelicus.” Members from two Vatican choirs have recorded the accompaniment in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
In the age of illegal downloading and music piracy, Sony is hoping that The Priests will turn into a financial godsend to appeal to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. They also quietly hope that the devout might be more likely to pay for the music rather than to rip it off the Internet.
It certainly helps that The Priests’ classically trained vocal stylings appeal to both religious and secular audiences. And as for all the money they’ll make from the sale of the new album, the trio will only take home only a small percentage of the overall profits. The real money will support their parishes and charities of their choosing, they say.
Says Father O’Hagan, “We’re not ordinary recording stars who are available to recording companies 24 hours a day. Because of that what we get is calibrated all of the time.
“I’m a canon lawyer in my spare time and the Canon Law doesn’t encourage the accumulation of wealth for a priest. We’re not supposed to do that.”
This week the three priests are in New York for a concert and they’ll be filmed everywhere they go by ITV, a British television station charting their unexpected rise to the top. Their debut concert will be broadcast on PBS on November 29, introducing them to America.
“We don’t perhaps appreciate how big that is yet, I suppose. We’ve been concentrating so much on making the album that we’re just catching up with how big that exposure might be,” says Father O’Hagan.
How do you go back to being a parish priest in a Northern Irish village after you’ve been feted and applauded in Manhattan?
“We have to be careful to balance all this with our responsibilities back home. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t think anyone’s done this before. But we’ll work at it and we’ll cross the bridges as we come to them. We want to lift people’s hearts with our music.”
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