It’s a phenomenon that has music industry people scratching their heads. How does a recording of Gregorian chant from a monastery in Austria top the music charts in the United Kingdom? Now comes a trio of priests from Northern Ireland to sell millions of records across the world and, with a tour of the United States underway, and a stop at the Park Theater on Nov. 20, The Priests may be well on their way to becoming as big in America as they have been in Europe.
According to the press material accompanying the three Catholic priests on their tour, they may be the most baffled of all. The Priests released their self-titled album back in 2008 and then went back to their parishes to do the grunt work priests have been doing for decades. They had no idea what was coming. “It was,” understates Martin O’Hagan, “quite a roller coaster ride.”
Which means that now, more than two years on, Fathers Martin O’Hagan, Eugene O’Hagan and David Delargy are amongst the most recognized, and successful, acts in the religious and secular worlds. To date, they have sold more than 2 million copies of their debut album, which sold at such a frantic pace it quickly secured them a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-selling classical debut of all time.
They were, to seemingly everyone, an irresistible proposition, gracing the pages of Time Magazine and every newspaper in the land, sharing sofa space with Regis and Kelly, and more upright chairs with Sir Trevor McDonald. They have sung all across the world, and to audiences that included the British Royal Family and the Irish President, and, more recently, been nominated for two Classical Brit Awards. The Priests shared a stage with the Pope before a crowd of 80,000 people in Hyde Park, England in September 2010 and millions watched on television at home.
About three years ago, Epic Records were on the lookout for a priest who could sing. They had their reasons. Martin O’Hagan, then 44, was recommended to them, and a label scout was promptly dispatched to O’Hagan’s former parish in Cushendun, Northern Ireland. Because O’Hagan had long sung as part of a trio, he brought his two compatriots with him, older brother Eugene, then 48, and lifelong friend David, 44.
“We sang three songs for them, which they recorded and also filmed,” Martin said, “and then they went away again. As far as we were concerned, that was it. It had been a lovely experience.”
But that was not it. Epic Records no longer wanted just one priest. They wanted the three of them. Perhaps encouraged by the enormous success of The Three Tenors, the record company signed The Priests and put them together with veteran record producer Mike Hedges, who had worked with U2 and Bono. A year later, "The Priests" was released, which featured established favorites like "Pie Jesu" and "Ave Maria," to critical acclaim and commercial success. Almost overnight, they became recording stars and followed a year later with their second album, "Harmony."
But they remained true to their calling and committed to their day jobs, which was all right with Father Bernard O’Reilly, another Irish priest who serves at St. Patrick’s in Harrisville and does not see any real conflict between show business and the priesthood, as long as the priests keep it in perspective.
“The liturgy is indeed a dramatic action and any dramatic skills that a priest can bring to it is all the better,” said O’Reilly, who played the priest who heard John Gordon’s last confession in Ken Dooley’s "The Trial of John Gordon" when it was featured at the Park Theater last spring. “In that sense, if it helps faithful feel the presence of Jesus, if it makes it clearer or motivates them, that is a good thing.”
Most Catholics of a certain age still remember when priests were treated with reverence and outright fear but that is no longer the case. Priests like O’Reilly are convinced that the days of fire and brimstone and talk of eternal damnation are a thing of the past.
“Today we emphasize a loving God and we hope to motivate the faithful to experience that love,” he said. “Any sort of dramatic technique you can bring to enhance that is a good skill to have.”
As much as he enjoyed being part of the John Gordon play, Father O’Reilly has no plans to pack his bags and head for Broadway or Hollywood. Like The Priests, he sees his life as that of a priest and not a performer and the performance will always be subordinate to his priestly calling.
“I participated in plays and productions as a young man and I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed being part of the John Gordon story,” he said, “but I am a priest first.”
Nevertheless, O’Reilly is pleased to see the church allowing the clergy to have more freedom of personal expression.
“Years ago, the discipline of the church wouldn’t allow for that,” he said. “When I was young, I liked to play rugby and when I was at school studying to be a priest, I wasn’t allowed to play. It’s nice to see priests are now allowed to display the fullness of their person.”
His fellow priests and countrymen will bring a certain glamour to the Park Theater but, they too remain committed to their vocation, in spite of the accolades and excitement of being on stage. In keeping with their determination to be seen as priests as much as anything else, O’Reilly said The Priests will actually celebrate Mass at St. Matthew’s Church in Cranston on the afternoon of the concert.
“Were we ever tempted to give them up?” Martin says. “Oh no, no. Our music, you see, is informed and enriched by our everyday duties. We were ordained over 20 years ago now. It informs everything we do and everything we are. The church will always come first.”
All three priests grew up singing in school, choirs and in church. The O’Hagans, Martin insists, were “Derry’s own Von Trapp family” with everyone from their mother on down to the youngest, who sang everywhere, including hospitals. After their ordination, the O’Hagan brothers continued to sing wherever they could, including in local opera and musical productions. That fateful meeting with record executives was just another “gig” to the brothers and their friend.
“Though I have to say, we never expected all this in a million years,” Eugene says. “Not for one moment did we ever dream something like this could happen to us. But I must say, it’s wonderful that it has.”
The priests continue to insist that pastoral duties trump all other concerns. There is a lot of work that goes into the day-to-day running of a parish and the priests insist the singing kept them from doing it.
“I suppose that, early on, all this could have seemed to some like a rather wee project – the singing priests – a bit of a novelty, if you like. But I think that once people heard us sing they realized that, hopefully, we were good.”
They proved to be successful “crossover” stars.
“We’ve met some wonderful people along the way,” Eugene says in their promotional material. “People from all different religions, and also people who have no interest in religious faith whatsoever. I like to think they found it interesting – and perhaps initially daunting – to have met three priests at the same time, but I hope we have shone a light on the clerical life, and offered people a chance to see behind the uniform. They’ve seen that we can take a joke. Not only that, but we can crack one as well. Everything we’ve ever done we’ve done in good humor.”
The Priests say the vast majority of record royalties go into a charitable fund to build schools in places like Cambodia, Uganda and Thailand and much goes to aid retired priests and the homeless. But there is no question that they enjoy the perks of fame.
“As priests, it is important to live within our means and we do that quite comfortably,” Martin admitted. “To redistribute the rest of our royalties elsewhere is, we believe, the right and proper thing to do.”
The Priests say they have many people around them to help keep their feet on the ground, “particularly our parishioners.”
“We remain first and foremost committed to our parishioners,” Martin said, “and we would never let that balance tip the other way.”
For now, they expect to go on singing as long as they can. Says Eugene, “I certainly know that Martin, David and I will continue to sing, whatever comes, because it gives us such pleasure to do so. Our fervent hope is that it continues to bring pleasure to everybody else.”
As for Father O’Reilly, he hasn’t actually hired an agent but, “I’m on the list for Ken Dooley and he’s promised to let me know when some little bit might come along,” said O’Reilly, who is amused at the thought of being type-cast as an Irish priest.
“That’s one of the dangers of the acting profession,” he chuckled.
The Priests go onstage at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 20. Tickets start at $29. Dinner for $25 is available at The Stage Door restaurant and lounge inside the complex at 6 p.m. To buy tickets, go to the box office at 848 Park Ave, in Cranston, or call 467-7275, or go online to www.parktheaterri.com.