We’re going to be Pope stars

The ‘boy band’ singing for the pontiff won’t give up the day job but they do have church webcams. 

12 September 2010
The Sunday Times

A few weeks ago in the parish of Newtownards and Comber in Co Down, Fr Martin O’Hagan was getting ready to dismiss the congregation for another week.

The parishioners strained to hear the usual announcements about the parish cake sale and the forthcoming baptisms. But this time, the serene-looking priest with the long eyelashes had something to add that would spark a ripple of delight in the pews below. “Well, now, just to let you know I’m not going to be here on the weekend of the 18th of September because the band has got a gig in London.”

When he used the word band he meant the Priests, of which he is a member, along with his older brother Fr Eugene O’Hagan and their friend Fr David Delargy. And by gig he meant a performance for Pope Benedict XVI and 80,000 others in London.

Although the news of the Pope’s visit to Britain and the £1.5m cost has detractors in a lather, the Priests are understandably bubbling with excitement and Martin describes it as “a wonderful honour”.

These middle-aged men who hail from in and around Derry were the obvious choice for the vigil in Hyde Park. Discovered two years ago by talent scouts at Sony Music, they have sold more than 3m albums. Their first, comprising sacred arias, was released in November 2008 and entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-selling debut for a British classical act.

At the vigil, The trio will sing classical pieces, including one of their own compositions before the Pope arrives and then as he appears on stage. They will then move on to sing Panis Angelicus.

Martin jokes: “The Pope might join in, you never know, being a musical man himself. He might just say ‘Oh, why not!’ and get caught up in the euphoria of it. Let’s hope.”

The clerics have been singing together for 36 years. Eugene and Martin are tenors and David is a bass-baritone. As Martin explains: “In terms of the Priests, we’re twoand-a-half years old as a boy band, but we go back a lot longer than that. I met David in school aged 11 in 1974.” Then he adds dolefully: “That’s my cover completely blown.”

Given the demands of their music, they are regularly away from their parishes for tours and recordings, but they have no plans to make it a full-time career. David says: “I don’t think any of us would consider giving up our ministry as priests in the dioceses to be a full-time musician or performer. “Those things wouldn’t be of interest to us. It’s the combination of music, singing and ministering that we enjoy. It would be hard to imagine doing one without the other.”

Martin is also a hospital chaplain to Ulster hospital. “I’ve had a few emergency calls to administer the last rites this week. One was for the youngest 100-year-old I’ve ever seen. I also had a wee call about a man who was 85. Both were suffering from Alzheimers.”

David is the parish priest of Hannahstown on the outskirts of Belfast and Eugene is the administrator of the parish of Ballyclare and Ballygowan, Co Antrim. Eugene bats away any suggestions that the pressure of fame leads to tensions among the group. “There’s almost a telepathy between Martin and myself as brothers and we’ve known David for years,” he said. “We’ve almost introduced him as an honorary brother. We have our differences of opinion, we agree to disagree sometimes, but it’s all reasonable and responsible and adult.” David adds: “When we’re together we have a great laugh.”

They set up the Priests’ Charitable Trust in 2009 and a significant proportion of their royalties are distributed via the trust to organisations such as Sightsavers International and charities that help the homeless or provide education in countries such as Cambodia and Uganda.

David has been to Thailand to work with one of their chosen charities that provides an education for children in the country. “It gave me an insight into the life that people are living, the level of poverty and the daily struggle to survive. That was a big eye-opener for me.”

Since becoming famous, Eugene has embraced technology and stays in contact with their fans.

“I’m ahead of the posse when it comes to things technological,” he boasts. “I’ve just upgraded to an iPhone and I’m the tweeter of the group. I don’t tweet everyday, as it’s impossible to keep up with the expectations my fellow tweeters have, but I shall be tweeting about Hyde Park.”

He also proudly announces that he has installed a webcam in the church and “lots of different nationalities are beginning to beam into the Saturday night or Sunday mass”.

Martin is not far behind, having also installed a webcam in his church. “People have found their way to our respective websites and they’ve been able to join our communities in a virtual way which is nice.”

Small wonder their congregations have swelled, with even non-believers eager to hear them sing. And these priests really can sing. It is not your usual altar fare of “I’ll just hum along into the microphone and hope no one notices I sound like an electric saw”. This is proper giftfrom-God stuff.

The Priests’ new album, Noel, is released on December 3. www.thepriests.com