They're back: Priests with faith in the power of music

Balancing faith and performance

The Northern Irish priests who became classical music stars are back with a new album and tour. But they insist their parishes need them more than ever. The Guardian takes up the story.

In a church hall in Newtownards, 16km from Belfast, the gentle chatter and clacking of crochet needles at the Wednesday afternoon friendship club is interrupted by the sound of music. Club regulars first fall silent and then quietly join in Fr Martin O’Hagan’s rendition of How Great Thou Art as his rich tenor fills the room.

In other circumstances, the friendship club women might have paid good money to hear Fr O’Hagan sing.

But the parish priest is a well known figure around town, and anyone can walk into St Patrick’s church in Newtownards or Our Lady of the Visitation in neighbouring Comber most days to listen to a man who has performed for the Pope, Prince Charles, the Irish president, and audiences around the world.

Eight years after the Priests – Martin, his brother Eugene, and David Delargy – smashed records with their debut album, the trio’s new collection, Alleluia, is released tomorrow.

The past five years have been largely spent celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, praying with the sick and dying, baptising babies, nurturing the young, and doing a million other things that make up a priest’s life, but in November they will be back on tour in the US. A film based on their lives, provisionally called Raising the Roof, is in pre-production in Hollywood.

The Priests became an instant success after signing with Sony in 2008, a few months after Fr O’Hagan answered a phone call from an agent looking for a singing cleric. Their eponymous first album was released in more than 30 countries and set a record for the fastest-selling classical debut album. They collected gold and platinum discs across three continents.

“We didn’t expect that level of success at all,” says Fr O’Hagan.

The men – who have clocked up 84 years in the priesthood between them – insisted on a clause in their contract allowing them to juggle their parish commitments with their new celebrity status. The parishes always came first, they said, but it wasn’t easy to balance the growing demands of their lives.

“The first year we were faced with whole new experiences. We had to grapple with getting the balance right. We did three albums in three years,” says Fr O’Hagan, acknowledging the risk of burnout.

Photo: The Priests at the launch of their debut album in Madrid in 2008 (Reuters)

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The Priests: return of singing clerics with faith in the power of music