Move over Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti. Here come Delargy and the O’Hagan brothers. And while the latter trio might not have the name recognition of the aforementioned Three Tenors, Irish priests Fathers Eugene and Martin O’Hagan and David Delargy are climbing the charts of international stardom.
Known simply as The Priests, the trio has been making international headlines since signing a recording contract with Sony BGM Music Entertainment in April. That reached a crescendo in November with the release of their 14-song, self-titled album.
“These are intense days,” Father Martin said from a room at London’s Royal Garden Hotel where the priests were on their final day of a promotional tour that also took them to Milan and Dublin. “The ministry, we feel, is being extended now. We hope that we will ‘put out into the deep.’ John Paul II speaks of this whole phenomenon of ‘putting out into the deep’ in a modern, contemporary world and using all the means of technology to try to bring a gentle message of hope.”
The whirlwind began in February when Irish musician Liam Bradley followed up on stories he had heard of two brother priests who were accomplished vocalists.
The O’Hagans brought longtime friend and trio member Delargy into the mix, and on Feb. 17, they recorded a demo in Belfast, Ireland, for Sony BMG. Three months later, Sony BMG’s Epic Records signed the trio to a contract. They recorded a CD during a concentrated period beginning in June, working with producer Mike Hedges, who’s previously led groups such as U2 and The Cure.
On Nov. 17, The Priests’ first CD made its debut, featuring classics such as “Ave Maria” and “Pie Jesu.”
“There are some songs that whenever I heard them in the final mix kind of gave me goose bumps, even though I’ve been involved in the singing and recording process,” said Father Delargy, 44.
One listen and it’s clear that The Priests aren’t just a novelty. Their talent has become obvious to many others, earning them publicity on CNN.com, in Time magazine and on the BBC, YouTube, Ireland’s “Late Late Show” and more. They even have their own website (ThePriests.com).
It’s all a long way from Garron Tower (St. MacNissi’s College) overlooking the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, where the three future priests came together as boarders in 1974. There they received vocal training, performed in operas and first sang together in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” — Eugene as Major General Stanley, but Martin and David as girls. “I have the negatives, and no one’s going to see them,” Father Eugene said with a laugh.
Each owes a nod to his parents. Joan O’Hagan was “a fine pianist and lovely singer” and performed locally, said Father Eugene. After The Sound of Music appeared in theaters in the 1960s, she organized her six children into an Irish version of the Von Trapps, traveling to and winning talent competitions. She died four years ago, but their father, Frank, is alive at 93.
Father Delargy’s father, Francis, meanwhile, was likely to be heard singing “Summer Time” or “Some Enchanted Evening,” and the family often passed its time singing during car trips up and down the coast. “Singing was part and parcel of our childhood,” said Father Delargy, whose parents are still alive.
Eugene, two years older than Martin and David, split the group in 1982, when he left for the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. But the trio was reunited two years later when the others followed as seminarians. It didn’t take long for word to get out that the Eternal City had a treasure in its midst.
The three seminarians — who took to calling themselves Holy, Holy, Holy — began performing at various concerts and events, especially on Irish feast days. They also performed at papal ceremonies in the mid-1980s as cantors of the Psalms and readings.
Each chanted the Gospel when ordained as a deacon. The Pope was likely to greet them after a ceremony by saying, “Ah, the Irish College.”
The priests continued vocal training in Rome while working toward ordination — Father Eugene in 1986, Fathers Martin and David in 1989. Today all three run parishes in Northern Ireland: Father Eugene at Ballyclare and Ballygowan, Father Martin at Cushendun and Father Delargy at Hannaghstown.
The trio has continued to perform together through the years. They chant and sing during funerals for fellow diocesan priests.
Twelve years ago, they formed a choir to learn Church pieces by some of the more demanding composers, meeting every Sunday night to rehearse. And they’ve had parts in performances with the Castleward Opera Company.
Recording with Sony, though, was outside that comfort zone.
“We heard of the dark side of the music industry, but we haven’t really experienced that in an overt manner,” said Father Martin. “We’ve met a lot of very good people, a lot of very hard working people. I suppose we were quite ignorant of all the aspects that go into creating the album: teamwork, expertise, creativity, musicianship, the technical knowledge and understanding. We really appreciate what it means to create an album and always think twice when we put that CD into the CD player.”
From Sony’s perspective, The Priests aren’t typical talent, a fact reflected in their contract, signed on the steps of the Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London. It exempted them from any promotional or recording duties that took them away from parish duties. It also specifies that none is obliged to take part in a performance or commercial activity they deem conflicts with their religious beliefs.
The Priests also have stipulated that a percentage of the proceeds of record sales will go to charity. Father Martin said the trio has been surprised to hear reports of $1.4 million or more coming their way. “It certainly isn’t in the millions,” he said.
But the reports of charity are correct.
“What we hope is if royalties begin to filter through … a significant proportion of the moneys go to charity,” said Father Martin. “How that will be disbursed, we have to work out. We’ll probably establish a foundation, sit down and work out charities that will not necessarily be restricted to a Catholic charity.”
Differences extend beyond the contract, though, said their manager, Samantha Wright of Bright Artist Management.
“They differ in many ways, the biggest thing being they have come to the music business at a more mature age, so they know themselves,” Wright said. “They are less impressionable; they have real jobs in the real world.”
Wright said she has worked with music legends and that The Priests “equal them in their talent and professionalism.” Sony BMG executive Nick Raphael, who has worked with artists like rapper Jay Z, called them “extraordinary men blessed with a stunning musical talent” in a press release.
They’re different than Wright expected in more ways than one.
“I must confess to being apprehensive when I first met them,” said Wright, who was baptized in the Anglican Church, but admitted she is not religious. “I thought they would be disapproving in some way or other. But they didn’t judge me at all. In fact, I had judged them, believing they would judge me. If all clergy are like this, bring more on!”
That speaks to one of the reasons the priests took on the project.
“We certainly had the opportunity to meet people who are not coming from the same religious or church background as ourselves,” said Father Delargy. “Some of them have had no contact with a church or with faith or the Gospel or clergy. Being with us is like landing on a new planet for some of them. [It] amazes me that people can live their lives in some respects and not have some contact somewhere along the way with the world of faith that is so familiar and so much a part of our life.
“None of us has kind of set out to convert anybody in any explicit way. The evangelization we might do is by way of, hopefully … trying to be a good model of priesthood, good ambassadors for the Church.”
More of The Priests is on the way. The trio will perform in Ireland sometime this spring, said Wright, and a news release has indicated that a national U.S. broadcast from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York also has been discussed. Last month, a documentary on The Priests aired in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“In some sense, we feel that what we are doing is pretty much in keeping with the priesthood that we have lived and experienced since the beginning, only it is on a much bigger scale,” said Father Delargy. “The way I kind of look on it, I might have 200 or 300 people at Mass, but this album will go to different parts of the world where I can’t go myself. It will do the traveling for me.”
Anthony Flott writes from