Contents Year of St. Paul Eye On Entertainment Editorial Ask a Franciscan Links for Learners Faith-filled Family Book Reviews Subscribe
The Singing Irish Priests: Unlikely Celebrities
By Peter Feuerherd
This trio’s debut CD sold over a million copies worldwide in just seven weeks.

Q U I C K S C A N

Instant Success
Shamrocks and Purple Ribbons
Pastoral Duties Are Priority
Instant Fame
Overwhelming Reviews
Parish Clerics
Reinforcing Image
Hearty Singing Encouraged
Broadway Success Story
Working for Peace

PHOTO BY STEVE SCHOFIELD

ON THE AFTERNOON before St. Patrick’s Day last March, the line snaked up West 49th Street in Manhattan, next door to the bawdy Chicago musical and across the street from where Jane Fonda was performing to stellar reviews in 33 Variations.

Many of the hundreds of people lined outside St. Malachy’s Church were adorned in green, but they were not waiting for deals on $150 Broadway tickets. This was a rare event in New York—a cultural freebie. These fans of three singing priests from Northern Ireland were not to be denied seats at a mid-afternoon concert that would be aired on EWTN.

The singing group known as The Priests includes Fathers Martin O’Hagan and Eugene O’Hagan, who are brothers, and their friend David Delargy. After the trio signed a recording contract with Sony, Father Delargy said, “Singing is very much what we do,” reported Catholic News Service (CNS). “This is bringing it to a wider audience. We are singing sacred music, continuing what we have always been doing.”

Nick Raphael, who negotiated the signing, said, “Their voices are incredible. They’re going to be wonderful global superstars,” reported CNS. It was a prophetic statement.

Instant Success

The Priests live far from a pop-star existence, despite their $1.2 million music deal. Profits they receive as recording artists from concerts around the world go to charities. They are an unlikely commercial success.

At a time when much music is distributed online and commercial recording sales have slumped, their CD, titled The Priests, has been a certified hit in Catholic and non-Catholic countries. The CD is packaged with nothing more compelling than the image of a simple cross on the cover. It was released in over 40 countries and marketed for last Christmas season.

Their Web site (www.thepriests.com) says, “The album sold over a million copies worldwide in just seven weeks, achieving platinum status in the U.K., Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and, outstandingly, the album is seven times platinum in Ireland.”

The dulcet tones of these singing clerics offer classics such as “Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus,” as well as Irish classics and seasonal favorites.

Father Eugene O’Hagan says, “Through the songs we sing, we can hopefully lift people’s spirits,” reported Thomson Reuters.

“Their message of faith and hope resonates with all,” says Dan Schreck, a consultant to Sony Music, The Priests’ recording company, and a young-adult ministry leader for the New York Archdiocese. “They are their best salesmen.”

SPONSORED LINKS

When The Priests performed in New York last March, it was just weeks after Northern Ireland was wracked by the killing of British soldiers, in what some feared was a resurgence of the old sectarian battles. The trio each wore a shamrock adorned with a purple ribbon, a symbol of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. They explained the symbolism to their audience.

For the first time, the violence was roundly condemned by nearly all sectors of Northern Irish society, both in the churches and among political leaders, both Catholic and Protestant. “We are trying to isolate them [the terrorists] and say they don’t have the support of the community,” says Father Delargy.

The recent terrorism, says Father Martin O’Hagan, “sends a shiver up your spine,” as most people in Northern Ireland thought that the political violence had long since ended. He’s concerned that a new generation of young people, who have never been exposed to ongoing civil war, will begin the cycle anew, particularly as the Northern Irish economy begins to deteriorate amidst the worldwide financial crisis and as unemployment among young people fosters resentment.

The witness of The Priests extends far beyond Northern Ireland. The crowd at St. Malachy’s is filled with Irish and Irish Americans, as well as Latinos, Italians, African-Americans and others from the parish.

This church, located in the Theatre District, is known for The Actors’ Chapel (www.actorschapel.org), famous for its outreach to Broadway and the arts. Tourists and others who are unconnected to the parish also wait patiently in the midday chill for the performance to begin.

In addition to their CD, The Priests have become known through a concert they recorded at the Cathedral in Armagh, Northern Ireland. The Priests: In Concert at Armagh Cathedral is available on DVD and is replayed frequently on TV during PBS fund-raising events. (Such prime fund-raising slots are usually reserved for pop stars such as Billy Joel and Paul Simon.)

After the concert at St. Malachy’s in Manhattan, they chat with Irish Americans who have familial connections to their home counties. In addition, these unlikely celebrities are interviewed in a spartan rectory, patiently fielding questions they have heard many times before in their rapid rise to fame.

Father Delargy says he was warned by a friend about the perils of celebrity: “You won’t change much, but people’s perception of you will change.” And so it has.

In their recent fame as international celebrities, the trio agrees with this axiom. “We keep each other grounded,” notes Father Eugene O’Hagan.

While the brothers and Father Delargy work to keep each other humble, it is their own dedication to the priesthood that keeps them focused on their work as pastors. Each of the singers is responsible for pastoral work in the Diocese of Down and Connor. Their recording contract specifies that their singing duties will take second place to their pastoral chores.

For their New York concert on Monday, March 16, they flew together out of Northern Ireland after offering Mass in each of their churches the day before. While jet-lagged, they didn’t allow fatigue to have an impact on their sound.

After the concert, they attended New York’s massive St. Patrick’s Day Parade and then were off to an appearance in Toronto.

They returned to their parishes by the following weekend, attending to the liturgies, Confessions, counseling and other responsibilities of a typical Irish pastor.

This was a typical quick-moving schedule for the trio. A previous tour of Europe consisted of a day in Copenhagen and another day in Paris, where their sight-seeing was driving in a cab past the Eiffel Tower. Then they were back to Northern Ireland, where their pastoral duties awaited.

Their fame was seemingly the result of chance, seasoned with talents that, in retrospect, cried out for international recognition.

The three priests, all in their 40s, were educated together in seminaries in Ireland and at the prestigious Irish College in Rome. At that time, their reputation as singers got them to sing at Masses for the pope. Throughout, they became famous in their small circle for singing together, both classic and popular tunes.

Father Delargy even talks about doing an album of Sting songs. And they regularly talk about the influence of U2, another Irish export to the music world.

After that flurry of small fame in the seminary world of Rome, David Delargy, Eugene O’Hagan and Martin O’Hagan were ordained and began work as pastors back home in Northern Ireland, leading happy yet obscure lives. But their talents did not remain secret.

Their record contract came about after a producer surveyed Irish Church music leaders about doing a Latin Mass recording. The names of the three priests kept coming up, and Sony decided to expand the original vision.

The company felt there was a huge potential market to be tapped in bringing out classic hymns sung in English, Spanish, Latin and German, languages that are all sung in The Priests’ debut album. The goal was to tap into the enormous Catholic market. What Sony didn’t count on, however, was how far the appeal of The Priests would extend.

MUCH LIKE other celebrities, the Irish singers known as The Priests (Fathers Eugene O’Hagan, Martin O’Hagan and David Delargy) have a Web site that includes photos, news, blogs and other topics that fans relish (www.thepriests.com).

Their blog entries record their hectic schedules last year. Father David described the trio’s trip to the Vatican in June 2008, where they met Msgr. Pablo Colino, director of “the Choir of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, which will be singing with us on the forthcoming album.” Their trip wasn’t all business: “Before lunch, there was time to do a little shopping for new surplices for the three of us.”

Then Father David wrote about flying back to Dublin, returning with his priest friends to the recording studio and their “privilege and pleasure of singing at the ordination of our new bishop.” Meanwhile, he said, “Parish life continues as usual.”

Father Martin said his August 2008 pilgrimage to Fatima “was a great experience indeed.” Making a recording with the other two priests involved a “real sense of support and teamwork,” he explained. “It was like being present at the birth of something wonderful and life-giving.”

Back at the parish, Father Martin was “busy visiting the sick” and getting ready “to begin a major restoration....It is a real time of change and much to think about as my mind races, but please God, all will be well.”

Father Eugene’s blog in October 2008 recalled flying back to Rome in September: “As for the three of us, we were returning to a familiar and much loved city, not to continue our studies but to complete what we had begun in April: the recording of our debut album of sacred music.”

They didn’t expect to become instant celebrities. Father Eugene wrote, “We have been amazed at the interest this musical venture has generated in countries around the world and, perhaps more significantly, the interest the media has in our everyday lives as priests in a part of the world that has, until very recently, been known for all the wrong reasons: for the bombings, indiscriminate murder and sectarianism of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.”

He summed up the trio’s goal: “If our album can contribute, even in a small way, to the efforts of those many people who have worked for peace and reconciliation in our fractured society, and those who continue to do the same elsewhere, we will be very happy.”

Nick Raphael, managing director of Epic Records, a division of Sony, told Time magazine that The Priests may not be the next Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. But, he added, they do have “the potential to be one of the world’s biggest music acts because what they do is compelling and has historical relevance.”

The Priests themselves agree, arguing that it is their material—mostly soft, classic-religious hymns—that attracts their audiences, not any of their particular gifts.

The brand is not new; it’s been around 2,000 years. They see themselves as simple transmitters of a tradition awaiting rebirth for each generation.

But their humility is countered by the reviews, which have been overwhelmingly positive. The Christian Science Monitor described their voices as “heavenly.”

And People magazine proclaimed that the holiday favorites on the CD would extend the spirit of the season. It was an accurate prediction.

The positive response to the CD has put The Priests into the realm of music phenomenon, akin to the recordings of Chant (1994), Gregorian chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. That best-selling recording broke out of the Catholic niche into a secular world anxious for calm and serenity.

For The Priests, concert dates have piled up and their celebrity has increased. Still, they are aware, as they perform in their clerical garb, that their presence represents something far beyond three humble pastors. They witness to Catholic spirituality and the value of priesthood. The symbolism is never far away.

Per the priests’ request, their Sony contract stipulates that they will not appear with acts that may demean the Catholic faith. Yet their music ministry is about more than keeping themselves sheltered from negative purveyors of the profane. They see their witness in a more positive light as well, particularly for music lovers who may feel estranged from Catholicism and are seeking ways to connect with God.

Father Eugene O’Hagan has felt the difference in his own small parish, with some 300 members in the Church of the Sacred Heart and Church of the Holy Family in Ballyclare and Ballygowan.

Northern Ireland still struggles with the legacy of centuries of Protestant/ Catholic strife, despite a landmark peace accord. Father Eugene O’Hagan’s town is largely Protestant. He says his singing career has had a positive ecumenical impact: “They see a different image of Catholic priests, which is not a bad thing.”

Father Delargy is pastor of the Church of St. Joseph and Church of St. Peter, the Rock, in Hannahstown, a suburban and rural area outside Belfast. He says that entertainment celebrity provides an opening to Catholics who have dropped out of formal religious practice yet remain spiritual seekers.

“There are people who are not accustomed to meeting clergy,” says Father Delargy. “They come with a certain amount of baggage. A priest is expected to be remote and distant. People come with that expectation. And they don’t get that and they don’t experience it. They have to reassess.”

Father Martin O’Hagan, pastor of the Church of St. Patrick, St. Mary, in the seaside area of Cushendum, says that he sees the impact the group has in the letters they receive. He notes that one New York woman wrote to say that The Priests CD offered her a spiritual musical interlude every day on her commute, a joyous respite she has shared with her co-workers.

Surprisingly, The Priests have achieved some of their greatest concert- and album-selling success in largely non-Catholic and highly secular Scandinavia: Their CD was number one in Norway and number three in Sweden.

Father Eugene O’Hagan says that the trio discovered in their concerts in northern Europe a hunger for the spiritual in countries which, while formally Lutheran, are places where church attendance is minuscule and people consider themselves to be largely secular.

“Sometimes, their only contact with the spiritual is with the music. That is the way people keep in touch with their spiritual side,” he says.

The Latin music they sing also sparks spiritual curiosity. Music lovers revel in the enchanting melodies. Yet often people, particularly the young, don’t have a clue to the meaning of the words. It causes them to seek out the hidden spiritual messages.

In an age where the priesthood has taken a beating through a decade of reports of sex-abuse scandals, both in Ireland and in the United States, these three humble pastors provide an opportunity for those seeking a different look at the Catholic clergy.

“Maybe Catholics feel a bit demoralized,” says Father Delargy. The story of three humble Irish priests with great talent for music resonates with many. “They have lived with a cloud for over the past 10 years. It’s a happy story. It’s a good news story. It gives people a lift.”

Vocation recruitment is not their goal, but reinforcing the image of the priesthood is definitely a by-product of their singing. Father Eugene O’Hagan notes that their music offers a tangible vocation message, providing a multidimensional view of Catholic priesthood. It is a sign, he says, to a young man that if he chooses priesthood, “I can bring my talents with me. I don’t have to pack them away somewhere.”

The Priests have a particular expertise, both in leading liturgies and via their concerts, in addressing an age-old issue: What is the best way to get tight-lipped Catholics to sing out heartily on Sunday mornings?

They note that Irish Catholics in particular have a complicated relationship with music. Singing is common, and the pubs resonate with music. Yet Irish Catholics, much like many of their cousins across the sea in North America, are less likely to belt out hymns in church.

Part of it, they say, is due to the old Irish Protestant/Catholic divide. The Reformation Churches built much of their services around enthusiastic hymns; Catholics reacted by embracing quiet in church. The trio agree it’s time to overcome that sectarian reluctance.

Father Martin O’Hagan says that in his liturgical experience, “You keep trying, you keep singing. They do begin to join.”

Father Delargy adds that if Catholics begin to like a tune, and feel that they are not the only ones singing, hymns can be as loud and resonant in Catholic churches as they are routinely among Protestants.

At the end of their concert at St. Malachy’s, The Priests offer their audience a musical “Irish Blessing”: “May the road rise to meet you,/May the wind be always at your back,/May the sun shine warm upon your face,/May the rains fall soft upon your fields,/And until we meet again,/May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

The crowd at St. Malachy’s shows its appreciation with a standing ovation. On this St. Patrick’s Day Eve, The Priests are a definite Broadway hit.


Peter Feuerherd is a freelance writer/editor from Rego Park, New York, where he is also an adjunct professor of journalism at St. John’s University.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask a Franciscan  |  Book Reviews  |  Eye on Entertainment  |  Editorial
Editor’s Message  |  Faith-filled Family  |  Links for Learners
 Year of St. Paul  |  Bible’s Supporting Cast  |  Modern Models of Holiness
 Rediscovering Catholic Traditions  |  Psalms: Heartfelt Prayers  |  Saints for Our Lives
 Beloved Prayers  |  Bible: Light to My Path  |  Web Catholic  |  Back Issues


Return to AmericanCatholic.org

Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright



 Find 
 FIND