A shiny black Suburban SUV pulls up in front of Toronto’s St. Basil’s Church, and out jump three of the world’s newest pop sensations. With a smile and a cheerful hello, Father Eugene O’Hagan, his brother Father Martin, and Father David Delargy look none the worse for wear after flying across the Atlantic less than 48 hours earlier. They stand next to the vehicle, adjusting their stiff white clerical collars.
The Priests, as the trio are called professionally, have sold more than 1.4 million copies of their debut album worldwide, making it the fastest-selling debut album by a classical artist. (Their second album, Harmony, is set for release later this year.) And yet, their dramatic arrival at St. Basil’s notwithstanding, they are the antithesis of pop superstars.
Parish duties come before their musical career. The contract with Sony Music specifies that they must be back home in Northern Ireland every weekend to conduct mass, meet parishioners, and fulfill church administrative duties. Short promotional trips are squeezed in along with rare concert appearances. Clearly they are still coming to grips with the impact their music—a collection of devotional songs and classical arias—has had spiritually and musically.
“We didn’t set out to convert the world or change things,” says Father Eugene. “Northern Ireland has known a great deal of conflict over the last 30 years, and music has bridged those barriers.”
The three first met at St. MacNissi’s College, a boarding school in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, where they, and many of their classmates, had been sent to avoid the Troubles that gripped the country. They underwent classical music training there. At the same time, they were exposed to pop music. “This was not a privileged boarding school as one might imagine, and we had restricted access to television,” Father Eugene remembers. “But we always managed to watch Top of the Pops—all the rising pop stars from T.Rex to Blondie and others. I remember buying ABBA and John Denver, people like that.”
The musical friends trained under famed vocal coach Frank Capra, and live concerts soon followed. When audience members asked for recordings of their music, the seeds for this project were sown.
“Of course, when we were first approached by the music industry last year, we were very flattered,” Father Eugene says. “The prospects, in one respect, fulfilled not so much our own aspirations but those of other people who often encouraged us. Secondly, the project sounded very exciting. Not every day does a big music company offer you this opportunity.”
Their self-titled album was produced by Mike Hedges, best known for his work with U2, Dido, Manic Street Preachers, and the Cure. The brothers O’Hagan, tenors both, leave their friend to handle baritone duties. Tracks include the familiar “Ave Maria”, “Panis Angelicus”, “O Holy Night”, and “Pie Jesu”; the 14 songs on the album were favourites of the trio, all carefully chosen from a long list of some 60 or 70 songs.
After Sony recoups its $1.75-million investment, the profits will be largely put into a charitable foundation that the Priests have established. The fine details are still being finalized, but suffice it to say it will provide funds benefitting the Catholic Church as well as important issues such as world hunger, education, and, of course, music.
And what is their parishioners reaction to the celebrities in their midst?
“Very favourable,” Eugene says. “I suppose in the beginning they were a bit incredulous—like ourselves—but at the same time, knowing we have sung and built up a musical life in our own parishes, they are not surprised. We have kept them entirely informed and they are 100 per cent beside us. I often say they are on the album but they can’t be heard.”
Unlikely pop stars for sure, but the trio are quickly becoming conversant in the music industry lingo. “I guess [the album has] gone platinum in most unexpected places like Norway, Sweden, England—four times platinum in Ireland,” says Father Eugene. “It’s gone gold here in Canada. All those kind of terms are new to us. The only thing I have in common with that is my platinum-coloured hair.”
The Priests photo by Steve Schofield.