This is one of my favourite entertainment pieces. I remember how easily this one came because I feel so profoundly moved by their music and from speaking to Father Martin. This is also probably my last entertainment pieces before I went over to the news desk.
L-R: Father David Delargy, Father Eugene O’Hagan and Father Martin O’Hagan.
I’ve interviewed all manner of people working in the entertainment industry – actors, musicians, comedians and film makers. The thing that struck me is that a lot of them are quite down-to-earth. Some even mention this to you at some point of the interview.
But a phone interview with Father Martin O’Hagan of top-selling classical vocal trio The Priests reminded me of the true meaning of “down-to-earth”.
It was 10.50am in the United Kingdom and 6.50pm in Kuching. After our preliminary hellos, I did what comes naturally to most people when they get one-on-one time with a priest. I confessed.
I could almost see Father Martin nodding with empathy before telling me it was okay to be nervous. But as I slipped into my role as the interviewer, I forgot what I was so worried about. O’Hagan had a voice that immediately sets you at ease. I felt like I could tell him anything, or in my case, ask him anything.
So I asked if he was comfortable with Time magazine saying that The Priests sing like angels.
“We are very flattered. Time is very complimentary about us.” O’Hagan said. “We enjoy music. We are very conscious of its power and how it reaches people. Hopefully, our music will reach people’s hearts.”
Their 14-track album contain classics like Ave Maria, Pie Jesu, Irish Blessings and O Holy Night. Their execution is flawless – a harmony of technical precision and heartfelt expression.
Although they’ve been singing together for 30 years, the three Fathers never did see this coming.
“We never thought it would happen. We never dreamed of anything like this.” O’Hagan said. “When we were approached, we had to think very carefully. It’s a whole new horizon, but in the end, we went ahead with it. Music had always been an extension of our ministry. We are thrilled and thankful to God.”
He acknowledged that there is a public curiosity because they are and will remain in their vocation as full time priests, recording deal and concerts not withstanding.
The Priests – made up of O’Hagan, his brother Father Eugene O’Hagan and their childhood friend Father David Delargy – signed on to Sony BMG last year. Their contract specified that their parish duties remain uninterrupted by promotional or recording commitments.
“My congregation are thrilled and supportive. They’ve been part of the whole journey.” O’Hagan said.
It’s hard to miss the fact that the group is also made up of mature gentlemen rather than typical young starlets. This is not because they’ve just ventured into singing. The trio have been at it since they were in St. MacNissi’s College together.
After leaving college, they trained for priesthood at The Seminary in Belfast. They also trained under the Belfast-based singing teacher, Frank Capper MBE. Eugene O’Hagan took advantage of the fact that he was able to study under Sergio Ballini. The Priests were invited to sing for the Pope in the sacred liturgy.
It was only last year, after 30 years of singing together, that they were discovered by a talent scout. Father Martin said that the offer caught them by surprise, but the time was right.
“God stepped in.” he said. “The advantage of being discovered now is that we have more experience to bring in with us. Our stories are interwoven. The timing? It’s providential, a gift. In the time of economic uncertainty, I hope this music came at the appropriate time.”
Coping with the additional responsibility is sometimes not easy.
“It gets very busy. There are many things to do. We just have to learn to find a balance.” he said. “What little free time we have, we have to use creatively to keep in touch with family and friends. We always have to juggle.”
Everyone juggles and they are no different, he added. “You just have to keep the right aspects in place.”
Being a priest in a parish enables him to maintain a certain rhythm and stay grounded.
“My parishioners keep me grounded.” he said. “They remind me that life continues – baptisms, weddings, confirmations. To journey through it with them is a wonderful experience.”
I asked him what an average week is like for him and he rattled off a list of things. I scribbled until I ran out of space and he kept going.
“Everyday is different. There’s mass everyday. There’s administration work to do because I don’t have anyone to do that for me. I’m also restoring a 200-year old church.” he said, continuing with what must be the items you expect to find listed in a priest’s calendar.
“And I go to see my 93-year old father. There’s time set aside for God. There’s hardly any time for myself.” he finished.
O’Hagan said that his parents have been tremendous musical influences. His vocal teacher Frank Capper introduced them to the classics. He loves the Baroque era, drawing his influences from Verdi, and works of opera like Puccini. He is also fond of jazz and contemporary singers, adding that he also enjoys Enrique Iglesias.
The Priests were spotted not 12 months ago and their debut album is already a record breaker, officially the fastest selling debut by a classical act. It sold over a million copies worldwide in just seven weeks, achieving platinum status in the UK, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand. It is five times platinum in their native Ireland.
The album was produced by music legend Mike Hedges, the man responsible for hit albums by U2 and Manic Street Preachers.
O’Hagan revealed that they’ve been asked questions about the dark side of the music industry, but their experience have been largely positive.
“Sony is respectful of our lives and contract. We are aware that Sony is a business and there is work to do. The album has a commercial aspect. But we are treated very well.”
There is no denying that there is a darker side, but O’Hagan said it’s not happened to them.
“I think it’s because we are a learning curve for them. They’ve never dealt with members of the clergy before. Maybe age is a factor. We have to be ourselves. We bring all that into the music. It’s important for us. Music is for all.”
He is impressed with the people they met since embarking on this journey.
“We’ve met a lot of hardworking people. I’m enthralled by the process of making the album – the technology, expertise and so on. The sheer teamwork involved is fantastic. ” he gushed. “Going to Rome to record is fantastic. Seeing the interaction of people made it very real.”
The opportunity to travel is also a perk.
“We have been able to go to various countries. It allowed us get an insight, a glimpse on the culture and people. That’s been lovely.”
The Priests have been nicknamed “Holy Holy Holy” in college due to their shared determination to enter the priesthood. So it came as little surprise that O’Hagan is not prepared to embrace a new label.
“Well, we won’t call ourselves ‘stars’. We’re just straightforward priests.”
As we were saying goodbye, O’Hagan commented, “I have no idea what time it is there.”
I told him it was about seven in the evening and that I will be heading off to dinner after our conversation. He seemed a little startled.
“Oh my.” he said. “How wonderful and strange it is that we are so far away from each other, yet we are the same. We’re still people trying to get through life.”
The Priests in Concert at Armagh Cathedral is available on DVD from 30 March 2009.
(Published in thesundaypost, some time in March 2009)