Ireland: In a church hall in Newtownards, 10 miles from Belfast, the gentle chatter and clacking of crochet needles at the Wednesday afternoon friendship club is interrupted by the sound of music. Club regulars first fall silent and then quietly join in Father Martin O’Hagan’s rendition of How Great Thou Art as his rich tenor fills the room.
In other circumstances, the friendship club women might have paid good money to hear O’Hagan sing. But the parish priest is a well known figure around town, and anyone can walk into St Patrick’s church in Newtownards or Our Lady of the Visitation in neighbouring Comber most days to listen to a man who has performed for the pope, Prince Charles, the Irish president and audiences around the world.
Eight years after the Priests – Martin, his brother Eugene and David Delargy – smashed records with their debut album, the trio’s new collection, Alleluia, was released on 7 October. The past five years have been largely spent celebrating mass, hearing confessions, praying with the sick and dying, baptising babies, nurturing the young and doing a million other things that make up a priest’s life, but in November they will be back on tour in the US. A film based on their lives, provisionally called Raising the Roof, is in pre-production in Hollywood.
The Priests became an instant success after signing with Sony in 2008 a few months after O’Hagan answered a phone call from an agent looking for a singing cleric. Their eponymous first album was released in more than 30 countries andset a record for the fastest-selling classical debut album. They collected gold and platinum discs across three continents.
“We didn’t expect that level of success at all,” says O’Hagan. “It developed over a short and intense period of time. We were absolutely flummoxed and delighted. It’s safe to say we were not your average boyband.”
The men – who have clocked up 84 years in the priesthood between them – insisted on a clause in their contract allowing them to juggle their parish commitments with their new celebrity status. The parishes always came first, they say, but it wasn’t easy to balance the growing demands of their lives.
“The first year we were faced with whole new experiences. We had to grapple with getting the balance right. We did three albums in three years,” says O’Hagan, acknowledging the risk of burnout.
“And the pressures are greater now than they’ve ever been. The numbers [of priests] are smaller, but the duties are as great. There are times when you think you should be pulling back.”
O’Hagan’s parish covers Newtownards and Comber, and his brother’s takes in Ballyclare and Ballygowan – small Catholic populations in overwhelmingly Protestant areas. In contrast, Delargy’s church, St Michael the Archangel, is in predominantly Catholic west Belfast.
In the 18 years since the Good Friday agreement, which ended 30 years of conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists, Northern Ireland has been largely peaceful. But, say all three priests, sectarianism still creeps out from the shadows.
“When I came to Ballyclare in 2003, there were very few weekends when the church wasn’t stoned,” says Eugene O’Hagan. “Things have vastly improved, but you still see the last throes of the Troubles.”
Martin’s house has reinforced glass on its windows. “The house has always been a target. It’s died down a lot in the past few years, but there are still mavericks. There are still eggs and bottles thrown at night. Sectarianism is sometimes overt and sometimes very subtle. There’s a long way to go,” he says.
In Delargy’s overwhelmingly Catholic parish, there is also bigotry. “A lot of people find it hard to break free of deeply ingrained prejudices. People are much better at living together than in the past, but if you scratch the surface there are still very conflicted feelings.”
The priests, all in their 50s, grew up through the Troubles. The O’Hagan boys lived in Derry – a “sombre, dark city then”, recalls Martin – at the time of Bloody Sunday when 13 civil rights protesters were shot dead by the British army. They met Delargy at school, and all three later studied in Rome as seminarians. They have sung together as a trio for four decades.
As well as the transformations wrought by conflict and peace in their communities, the Catholic church has changed since they were ordained in the 1980s.
“It’s a different church now to the one I entered as a priest 30 years ago,” says Eugene. “There are not as many people, the church is not as central to people’s lives as it was for my parents’ generation. It’s a real challenge. The fish don’t jump into the boat.
“The [sexual] abuse scandal has often eclipsed the church’s message and the damage wreaked on people’s lives has had a huge effect on church-going numbers.”
Attitudes towards joining the priesthood have changed, resulting in a dramatic fall in numbers, says Delargy. “I grew up in a generation where the practice of faith was very strong. It was a natural thing for a young man to want to serve God, and going into the priesthood was supported by families and communities.
“Now young people are growing up in families where faith is not taught or lived in the same way. They’re growing up in a culture which doesn’t support vocation. Attitudes to celibacy have changed – people now think it’s unhealthy. If a young person says he’s going to become a priest, people think ‘what’s wrong with you?’”
The church, he says, “has come to realise that ‘mission territory’ is where we live. You don’t have to get on a plane – this is where the work needs to be done. That creates a sense of urgency. There has been a wakeup call.”
At the Sacred Heart church in Ballyclare, seven women and two men, most over retirement age, turn up for midweek morning mass. Wearing traditional white vestments, Eugene celebrates the Eucharist – a performance with parallels to the concerts he and his confreres have given to audiences of up to 1,800. Both require a love of the theatrical.
Despite their success, the priests have never considered permanently swapping their parishes for the glamour of celebrity. “You could escape and, yes, you look at other people’s lifestyles. But the parish comes first, we’re ingrained here,” says Martin.
Even with the extra workload, the men feel fortunate to have been able to combine their priestly vocations with their role as performers. “The bishop has never said, OK that’s enough, guys,” he adds. “Music reaches people, and crosses boundaries and frontiers. There is something healing about singing. It’s part of our ministry.”