CLASSICAL MUSIC trio The Priests will perform in the Galway Cathedral on Sunday August 16 at 8pm. The platinum-selling group, featuring three Roman Catholic priests from Northern Ireland - Fr Eugene O’Hagan and his younger brother Fr Martin O’Hagan, from the Derry village of Claudy, and Fr David Largy from Ballymena - perform as part of the Cathedral’s jubilee celebrations.
The trio have been singing together since they boarded in the 1970s as students at St MacNissi's College, Garron Tower, County Antrim. After signing a deal with Sony BMG in April 2008, their eponymous debut album was recorded in Northern Ireland and Rome, with the unusual honour of having been allowed to record in St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The Priests have now recorded three additional albums and written a book recounting the story of their musical journey together. To date they have sold 3.5 million records worldwide. Their albums and performances have received rave reviews, and not just in the pages of The Catholic Herald or other publications where a degree of bias might be suspected. Much of the earnings from their best selling albums is directed to charitable causes and the three priests continue to carry out the daily duties of parish priests among their communities.
Ahead of their Galway concert, Fr Martin O’Hagan took time out to talk about the group’s work. I began by asking about the progress of the biographical film about the trio which has been in the pipeline for the past few months.
“With regard to the film there can be twists and turns.” he replies. “The script has been redrafted and to be very honest they felt it still wasn’t quite complete, so they have gone back to the drawing board and are now going to look at it from an entirely different slant and maybe involve a greater sense of our biographies. It all takes a long time and we have been told to be very patient. When it does come out it will be a great honour for us and maybe the story can be a wellspring of support for others, or inspire others, to hang in there and work hard at their music, because it can be a hard graft, yet hard graft can ultimately be beneficial in the long terms, so I hope that the film catches that.”
As regards his own priestly vocation, did the fact his elder brother Eugene go into the priesthood influence Martin’s decision to do the same?
“There is an influence there undoubtedly” he admits. “Eugene is a few years older than myself and is definitely in the picture there as an influence and older brother. That influence was quite pivotal. Our parents were in no way pushy about the vocation though, they were very encouraging. They were hard-working ordinary people. I would say we are both very different characters, we have different ways of looking at things. As the vocation began to grow you could see each of us has a uniqueness and a gift and yet there are the common threads. It is great to have a brother who is not only a brother in the priesthood but also a blood brother as well, that is quite unique and very special, especially in times of ups and downs. I would put it as a uniqueness on the one hand but a common thread in the vocation.”
When The Priests get together to discuss what material should be on their next album it is a democratic holy trinity. “It’s a triumvirate really,” Fr Martin states. “We work hard together. What we do is pool together the pieces of music we feel we can bring the best out of and also that showcase our voices. David has a bass baritone voice whereas myself and Eugene have tenor voices but there is a difference in quality, but in selecting material we have no difficulty and a meeting of minds happens in deciding what is in.”
While most of The Priests’ repertoire consists of familiar classical material, their second album, Harmony, featured their own compositional debut ‘King of Kings’. Might this be a path they would like to explore further?
“Yes but it is getting the time to do all these things, parish life is very busy.” Fr Martin replies. “To be able to compose would be a wonderful opportunity in the future. ‘King of Kings’ was our first foray into composition, it is based on a prayer by Colm Cille. We were very pleased with it and it is a very popular piece in our repertoire. We’d love to increase that opportunity and delve further into the area of composition.”
The group have performed before popes and presidents, kings and queens, princes and princesses. Does Martin have a personal highlight from all these starry gigs? “We were once asked to go to Rome to sing at a large conference on vocations,” he begins. “I must say I was overwhelmed by the 6,000 people there. I turned to Eugene and said ‘Does this bring back memories? I hope our enthusiasm is still as bright as it was then.’
"We were hoping to meet Pope Francis but he is a spontaneous man by nature and arrived earlier than expected; we were told he would meet people at the end so I thought ‘there goes our chance’, but at the very end of our show one of his staff came to us and brought us over to meet him and for me that was a very special moment. The Archbishop who introduced us was a former lecturer of ours in university and he introduced us as ‘These are some of my former students’ and I was very touched by that. Pope Francis was such a wonderful man. His charisma had a big impact on me so that was my personal highlight.”
Fr Martin views music as another facet of his priestly ministry; “It is very much interwoven with all that we do. The liturgical music itself is absolutely fantastic, it can reach hearts where maybe a homily can’t. Music has a way of getting into the soul of a person, it is a language all of its own and can also be healing. I am a hospital chaplain as well in the Ulster Hospital and sometimes I burst into song there and it is a delight, music is a medicine in itself.”
Speaking on the upcoming concert, Fr Martin Whelan of Galway Cathedral said, “We are delighted to have The Priests perform a concert in Galway Cathedral. This is a big year for us as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Cathedral. Having such wonderful artists sing in the Cathedral makes this jubilee year extra special. We hope the people of Galway will enjoy this event and be part of our celebrations.”
People attending the concert must be seated by 7.45pm for an 8pm start. Tickets are €25 for main nave and €15 for side and back naves, and are available now at the Cathedral Book Shop and Parish Office.