The Very Reverend Eugene O’Hagan, Martin O’Hagan and David Delargy – collectively known as The Priests – were catapulted to fame when they signed with SonyBMG in 2008. Number one hits, a rumoured duet with Lady Gaga and interest from Australia, the USA and Europe followed.
“It was all a bit of a whirlwind,” says Eugene. “It was really accidental rather than by design. We went from obscurity to being very well known.” One minute they were sitting in confession, listening to the troubles of rural parishioners in Northern Ireland. The next they were collecting gold and platinum discs from Ireland, the UK, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, France, Norway, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. One minute they were making their way to isolated farms to meet members of their local community, the next they were being flown to St Peter’s Basilica, to record at The Vatican.
“I think someone must have lent a helping hand to make that happen,” adds Eugene. “If we’d sent a formal request we might still be waiting for a response now. St Peter’s Basilica is so spectacular and it isn’t easy to organise things like that.”
David says: “We were very busy the first couple of years, recording and releasing those albums. The albums were released internationally which meant there was a lot of travel, which took us around the world. It was all very exciting. Sony invested a lot of money in the project and they were giving us the full celebrity treatment with lots of nice hotels. It was very interesting and pleasant but very demanding and tiring as well. We were trying to make sure all our duties in the parish were covered. After three albums, we decided it was time to reduce our travelling and spend more time in our parishes.
The Priests will be back on October 9 with their fourth studio album. It will follow in the slipstream of their 2008 debut, The Priests, which reached number one in Ireland and number 5 in the UK, scoring a platinum disc in both territories. Their sophomore album, Harmony, achieved similar success. Released in 2009, it was a top ten hit in Ireland and secured a further platinum disc while the UK made it a top 20 record and helped it earn a gold disc.
The Priests are pleased that they’ve had time to catch their breath and make sense of their extraordinary rise.
Martin says: “We didn’t expect that level of success at all. It was somewhat meteoric. It developed over a very short and intense period of time. Sony initially approached us and offered us a contract for the UK and Ireland. Then they decided to go global. It was a global priority. We were absolutely flummoxed and delighted and intrigued. It’s safe to say, we were not your average boy band.”
David adds: “We are delighted that we have the opportunity to record a new album. The last one was 2010, so it’s been a while. The whole process of trying to identify suitable music and get the creative juices flowing and arrange it so that it’s suitable for us is very stimulating. It’s been very good fun to be back in the recording studio. We come to it now with a good bit of experience behind us. We are more relaxed about it, there’s not the same novelty, now we just enjoy it.”
While The Priests might have been forgiven for leaving behind their pastoral duties and enjoying the jet-set life of global stars, they did precisely the opposite. At the top of their priority list was the needs of people in local villages and towns, who wanted to hear the gospel.
Martin says: “We insisted that the Sony contract ensured our parish duties were not compromised. And, to their credit, they agreed.
“We have had to balance three diaries and lots of different appointments because all of us are parish priests. When you are on your own in the parish, as I am, there’s a lot to sort out. We’ve been very sure not to neglect our parishioners.”
The Priests were an instant success. Their debut album was produced by Mike Hedges, best known for his work with U2, Dido and Manic Street Preachers. It was released in more than 30 countries and was the subject of TV documentaries in the UK and USA. It became the fastest-selling UK debut for a classical act and sold more than one million copies in Ireland alone. That record still stands.
Their second album was similarly successful, charting around the world and being supported by a UK and Ireland tour.
The Priests view their music as a force for good. It has a unifying quality that brings together people of all faiths.
Eugene says: “We came out of a very troubled environment in Northern Ireland and we always found that music was a great healer. It gave people the opportunity to meet people from other traditions. Music always created a very safe environment, particularly during The Troubles, which were raging when we were going to college. Today’s world is topsy turvy and there are still serious threats on the world stage. It’s a bewildering place for people. Music gives people a sense of calm, serenity and hope.”
Martin agrees: “Music is a language all of its own. It can speak where words cannot. I am totally convinced that in our history here with The Troubles, music was always a bridging point. Through it all, across all the different faiths, and none, music was a considerable help in concentrating people’s goodness and proclaiming a positive message. It has been an important medicine in bringing healing and peace in this part of the world. Our music has brought enjoyment to people too, as well as peace, healing and comfort. That’s a great privilege for us and it is very humbling.”
The Priests are keenly attuned to the state of religion in the modern world. They observe the political issues that swirl around the Catholic church as well as the way it interacts with other faiths. Similarly, they are well placed to comment on the troubles afflicting other faiths and the rise of extreme groups who kill in the name of religion.
Eugene says: “Sometimes in every religion one can go to extreme and tip the balance from love of thy neighbour to love of oneself. Ultimately, in some cases, that tips into violence. In history, lots of horrible things have happened because of extreme religious views, where people think ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’. That’s not what religion is about. Violence is not part of any religion.”
Martin agrees: “When you have extremes, the danger is that religion is emptied of its richness and purpose and replaced by domination and ambition and greed. All of these things neutralise the very essence of what that religion should be. The death of Father Jacques Hamel in Rouen sent shockwaves through the church and beyond. His death makes everybody stop and think. How could anyone carry out an act of that nature in the name of religion? But the unified front of the Islamic faith in Rouen was profound. People came together and said: ‘No we do not want this, you do not speak for us’.”
David adds: “We’ve tried to be ourselves and to be natural and I think maybe that has given people a different perception of religion than they might have been used to, and a positive one I hope. But we haven’t set out with an agenda to do that. That wasn’t part of our thinking. If that’s happened, it’s good, but it’s not been part of our process.”
The Priests have found a happy medium, where they are able to balance the responsibilities of parish life with maintaining a global career. By co-ordinating their diaries, seeking the support of colleagues and devoting their energies to their music, they remain at the forefront of religious and secular music. The classical music trio have more ideas in the pipeline and hope that the release of their fourth album will be followed by a feature film, called Raising the Roof. The movie is currently in pre-production in Hollywood and could give them the opportunity to enjoy a red carpet premiere.
Martin says: “Raising The Roof is a distinct possibility, but you know how pipelines can be? They can be extremely long…. And at the moment, it’s somewhere in the pipeline! A draft was drawn up in relation to the storyline and that was fictional. There’s been a subsequent rethink to make it more autobiographical. It will be redrafted and presented in the hope that someone will take up the idea and run with it. I suspect it will be a little while yet, but we remain hopeful for it.”
Hollywood movies aren’t the only exciting prospect on the horizon. Projects with A-Listers could also be in the offing. When The Priests were recently asked who they’d most like to collaborate with, they suggested Lady Gaga.
Eugene says: “Lady Gaga is a fantastic artist and performer. She’s very unpredictable. Music opens a world of possibilities and if we ever got the chance to sing with her I hope we would do so harmoniously. She’s a fantastic musician and we respect her greatly.”
Martin adds: “She did something from the Sound of Music and that was pretty much the first thing I ever heard. I was so intrigued. I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, she is capable of singing so wonderfully’. I think it would be a wonderful meeting of minds if we got the opportunity.”
For now though, The Priests are focused on their new album and on a slew of forthcoming live dates. They enjoy their studio work though playing live remains the pinnacle. Seeing the reaction of happy fans is the crème de la crème and gives them a renewed sense of purpose.
Martin says: “When we perform live we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with the audience. We find it very uplifting and reassuring. But I always keep in my mind that there will be people in the audience who need a good night out – it’s not a vigil. There is humour and banter and we sing secular pieces as well. The audience goes home with a spring in their step.”
When the curtain goes down, The Priests also go home with a spring in their step. And they feel privileged that their parishioners have accepted their entry into a world of stardom. For it is members of their community who provide the foundation for their career.
Eugene says: “The parishioners have been great. Everybody in the community knows us very well and they’ve been delighted to share in our success. They have enjoyed it and it’s been good fun. I think they are quietly proud that we’ve shown our community in a good light. We’re from small parishes and we’re pleased and proud that we’ve done something that has shot a spotlight on our community. After all the bad news we hear, it’s great to have something to celebrate.”
It’s a message that has struck a chord with music lovers the world over.