When The Priests released their eponymously-titled album back in 2008, they had little inkling of what was about to happen to them. Frankly, who would?
As it transpired, plenty did - huge record sales, record-breaking triumphs, global fame, and racking up of an impressive number of air miles. To employ a motoring metaphor, they went from zero to 60 in under three seconds!
“It was,” understates Fr Martin, “quite a rollercoaster ride.”
Which means that now, several years on and four albums later, with a fifth underway, Fathers David Delargy, Martin O’Hagan, and Eugene O’Hagan are among the most recognised, and successful, acts in both the religious and secular worlds.
To date, they have sold over 3 million records. Copies of their debut album 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. The record holds to this day.
They were, to seemingly everyone, an irresistible proposition, gracing the pages of Time Magazine and newspapers across the world, and sharing sofa space with TV hosts around the globe.
They have been invited to perform across five continents - invitations that are hard to accept much of the time because of their need to be close to their parishes - and have been nominated for three Classical Brit Awards.
However, in addition to entertaining many fans, their audiences have also included the British Royal Family and the Irish President. Also, in September 2010, The Priests shared a stage with Pope Benedict XVI before a crowd of 80,000 people in Hyde Park, England, while millions watched on television at home around the world. And so when Fr Eugene says, with a knowing smile on his face, “perhaps we are blessed”, he may well mean this literally.
In 2011, along with their great musical heroes Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli, The Priests contributed to a new album, ‘Tu Es Christus’ to honour the late Pope John Paul II. They also wowed Italian audiences at concerts in such diverse venues as the glorious Sala del Cinquecento in The Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, Italy, and in Solliciano prison – “our Johnny Cash moment”, as Fr David jokingly called it.
The following year, 2012, they toured the US and Canada, taking in cities such as New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Seattle, among others.
Later that same year they performed before 80,000 enthusiastic fans in a packed Croke Park Stadium in Dublin, at the close of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, while once again, millions were able to watch on television at home.
In 2013 the Priests were busier than ever. Highlights included joining with other N-Ireland-born artists to perform in Derry/Londonderry at the opening Concert of the first ever UK City of Culture, as well as giving concerts in London, Malta, Belgium and even in the Vatican itself, where they were delighted to be presented to Pope Francis.
As Fr David said, “It was an enormous honour and privilege to be invited to sing at the Vatican. The whole experience was so joyful and uplifting. Meeting Pope Francis was an experience which I know we will remember and cherish for the rest of our lives”.
Towards the end of 2013 The Priests embarked on yet another highly successful concert tour through the US and Canada, performing in 17 cities, among them Montréal, Cincinnati, Harrisburg, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Wichita, Kansas City and Omaha.
In 2014 The Priests were honoured to meet HM Queen Elizabeth II during a reception at Buckingham Palace in London. Other highlights included participating in a “Gala Concert on the Occasion of the Canonisation of two Popes” in Toronto as well as giving concerts in Rome, London, Dublin, Malta and throughout the UK.
In spring 2015 The Priests embarked on their third US-Tour, performing in 10 cities, among them Carmel, Joliet, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Canton, Worcester and Aston.
The story of The Priests’ wonderfully improbable rise to global prominence is a delightful one, and one worth re-telling.
Back in 2008, Epic Records were on the lookout for a priest who could sing. They had their reasons. Fr Martin O’Hagan, then 44, was recommended to them, and a label scout was promptly dispatched to his former parish in Cushendun, Northern Ireland. Because Fr Martin had long sung as part of a trio, he brought his two compatriots with him, older brother Fr Eugene, then 48, and lifelong friend Fr David, 44.
“We sang three songs for them, which they recorded and also filmed,” Fr Martin recounts, “and then they went away again. As far as we were concerned, that was it. It had been a lovely experience.”
But that was emphatically not it. Unbeknownst to them, the ball was already in motion: Epic Records no longer wanted just one priest, for now they had happened upon three, who among them, possessed the voices of angels.
They were signed within a matter of weeks, and put into the studio with Mike Hedges, a seasoned producer who has worked with everyone from U2 to Manic Street Preachers.
A year later, their debut album “The Priests”, which featured established favourites like Pie Jesu and Ave Maria, was released to rapturous critical acclaim and instant commercial success. It sold in numbers unprecedented for a classical album, and almost overnight they became superstars, a status that was consolidated a year later with their second album “Harmony”, followed by their third album “Noël”.
These were no ordinary superstars, but instead three humble men adamant to remain first and foremost committed to their day jobs. “Were we ever tempted to give them up?” Fr Martin repeats. “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.”
Individually, all three priests grew up singing: in school, their local choir, and of course in church. The O’Hagan’s, Fr Martin says, “were Derry’s own Von Trapp family.” Under the wing of their mother, also a singer, they sang in the local community, including hospitals. Their main objective, then as now, was to lift spirits and put smiles on faces.
In their ‘twenties, by now ensconced within the church, they continued to sing wherever they could, both as part of prayer, but also in local opera and musical productions. Everybody who heard them knew that they were no ordinary singers, but rather something special, something rare.
In many ways, then, to be discovered and immortalised on record was only a matter of time. “Though I have to say we never expected all this in a million years,” Fr 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.”
And have they enjoyed it?
“Oh, absolutely yes. It has certainly had its challenges, its pressures, mainly because a lot of work goes into the day-to-day running of a parish. But the music has never interfered too much with our work, and it has given us so many different experiences.”
“I suppose,” Fr Eugene continues, “that, early on, all this could have seemed to some like a rather twee project - the singing priests - a bit of a novelty, if you like. But I think that once people heard us sing they realised that, hopefully, we were good.”
After all, there may well be over a billion Catholics in the world, but there are very likely five billion music lovers of every denomination - another reason why The Priests’ albums proved such successful crossovers.
“We’ve met some wonderful people along the way,” Fr Eugene confirms. “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 humour.”
Their music has also benefited others. The Priests take home only a small percentage of their not inconsiderable profits.
The vast majority of their royalties go instead into their charitable fund, which helps build schools in places like Cambodia, Uganda and Thailand, and is also used to help look after retired priests, and the homeless.
“As priests, it is important to live within our means,” Fr Martin says, “and we do that quite comfortably. To redistribute the rest of our royalties elsewhere is, we believe, the right and proper thing to do.”
This is a telling example of how success has fundamentally not turned these men of the cloth, as success so frequently does to so many. In fact, The Priests have adapted to public life with a remarkable ease that future pop stars might like to study.
Fr Eugene says “that this is because they are no longer in the first flush of youth, that they already have an abiding calling in life. In addition, they have many people around them to help keep their feet on the ground. “Particularly our parishioners,” he notes.
“We remain first and foremost committed to our parishioners,” Fr Martin echoes, “and we would never let that balance tip the other way.”
While they remain committed to their vocations, they always look forward to visiting new places and returning to old ones. An upcoming new album - with more convincing evidence of their gift in taking any song and making it their own - will undoubtedly keep them much in demand also in the years to come.
“We constantly err on the side of caution,” Fr Eugene says, “if only because we realise that commercial musical projects very often have a limited shelf life. But we enjoy singing enormously, and we would very much like to continue doing this forever”.
“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.”
“We are thrilled the music is making such an impact in people’s lives and I hope that we can continue to get the balance in our lives so that we can do this work, a ministry in itself.” Fr Martin.
The Priests play the Mount Errigal Hotel Letterkenny on Saturday, December 12 and the Millennium Forum Derry on Monday, December 21.