The Priests are a classical musical trio made up of three Roman Catholic priests from Northern Ireland. Father Eugene O’Hagan and his younger brother, Father Martin O’Hagan, are originally from the village of Claudy, County Londonderry, with the family now residing in Derry. Father David Delargy is from Ballymena, County Antrim. All three have been singing together since they met in the 1970s as students at Saint MacNissi’s College, County Antrim, and immediately realised their musical prowess as a singing trio. They were nicknamed “Holy Holy Holy” by their peers due to their shared determination to enter the priesthood. But it was a priest at their school who first noticed how talented they actually were. After leaving Saint MacNissi’s, they followed their vocational training at Seminary in Belfast. They also studied at Queen’s University where Father Eugene specialised in English and Scholastic Philosophy. Father Martin and Father David specialised in Ancient History and Scholastic Philosophy. During that time they all studied under the Belfast based singing teacher, Mr Frank Capper MBE.
The Priests new album Alleluia is released today and will be launched at HMV, Castle Place, Belfast at midday. We caught up with Father Eugene O’Hagan to find out about the new album and about how he balances his priestly ministry with life as part of a musical trio:
Father Eugene, how long has this particular album been in the making?
We’ve been planning this new studio album, our fourth, for the last 18 months. First of all, we are no longer signed to Sony UK (our contract ended at the end of 2014). On the positive side we were free to decide about the timing and content of a new album. On the negative, we had to consider how best to finance and distribute an album. The music industry has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years. Record shops, even the big chains, have disappeared from many city and town high-streets as people stream and download music to their iPhones, iPads and other hand held devices whilst many listen to tracks on Spotify and other platforms without paying an up front fee. So, lots of back room and painstaking thought and effort has had to go into this project. Thanks to all efforts we are now signed to SWM7 and have the necessary distribution deal.
We spent the late Spring and early Summer 2016 doing the vocal arrangements for the songs, rehearsing them and, in some cases, working out the lyrics for one particular song on the album before going into the Red Box recording studio in Belfast during July and early August to lay down the tracks in order to meet the deadline for the production and the scheduled release of the album today. Laying down our vocals was one thing, our producer, Derry-man, Frank Gallagher, no stranger to album production, then had to take the established tempi of the songs, incorporate our and his arrangements into a musical score, hire and record the orchestra and solo instruments and find a suitable choir to join us on some of the pieces. We directed Frank to Melisma, an excellent chamber choir based in Belfast, and Frank engaged the orchestra.
How do you narrow it down when it comes to choosing pieces to include on an album?
For this new album we threw into the mix all our best loved pieces and others that were suggested to us. We then cross checked our individual lists to see if there was unanimity on some pieces and where our “votes” scored highest on other pieces. It was a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest scoring process. However, unlike the Eurovision, we agreed the song with the most votes would not necessarily get onto the album. When we had whittled some 50 songs down to about 25 we then set about choosing those pieces we thought would best suit our voices, our sound and the kind of album we were aiming to make. Quite quickly we narrowed the songs down to 20 and from that to the 14/15 we thought could or should be on the album. In this process we were not alone and were helped greatly by Frank who has a wide repertoire and music background.
What has the response been so far to the advance release of some of the pieces from the album and now the album itself?
So far three of the 15 pieces on the album have been aired: Morning Has Broken has been aired on You Tube; that has been followed by Ave Maria on the Clare Balding BBC Radio 2 Sunday Morning show on 2nd October; and, Radio Scotland aired a snippet of Down in the River to Pray in an interview with my brother Father Martin. We have also pre-recorded The Lord of the Dance for ‘The Big Sing’ from the Royal Albert Hall (Songs of Praise) which airs next Sunday 9 October.
So far the response from the radio stations and our live pre-recording in the Albert Hall has been very very positive with people commenting on the harmonies and the richness of the arrangements for our three voices. That’s all very encouraging. Fingers and toes crossed that everyone else will agree!
At this stage you must have heard many special stories from people about your songs and pieces of music and how these may have impacted on them in their lives and in their faith journey?
Yes, you’re right. Its been amazing to hear from people how the songs, both on previous albums and those sung in live concerts, have resonated with people of faith and some who are searching for God, direction and meaning in life. One or two have actually begun a journey of faith because a song has triggered a curiosity or desire to find out more about the faith and the Catholic Church. For others, the music has reaffirmed their faith. Then there are those who have no association with any christian denomination or organised religion and they too, because they love music, have found the music uplifting. They have also had the chance to meet a priest for the first time and we’ve been reminded just how important and grace filled that kind of accidental encounter can be.
How do you manage your active ministry as a priest with this very special ministry of music?
Good question. All three of us have parishes and additional special ministries.We have three very contrasting diary commitments which means we have to plan things well in advance. Even with that, the unexpected can happen and plans have to be adapted accordingly. It would be impossible to do what we do without the support of parishioners and colleague priests whose personal and practical help has been outstanding. A thousand thanks to them. Unlike other “bands” we are not able to tour for extensive periods of time so we limit any tour we may be able to do in a year to two weeks maximum and take these weeks as part of our annual holidays. So a tour is a bit like a “busman’s holiday” but it’s always worth the effort and we get an enormous amount of enjoyment and positive feedback from it.
How important is it for you to uphold this ministry of music so that the wonderful sacred music you perform and love gets passed on from this generation to the next?
We have been given a marvellous gift in music and a wonderful and unexpected opportunity to share that and our lives as priests with hundreds, indeed , thousands of people. It’s been a real grace. We have been singing since we were school boys and singing together for many years before we became widely known as The Priests.
For as long as is possible and practicable we would like to continue singing and making music, and through it bring solace, hope, joy and surprise to those who know us, those who hear us, those who love music for music’s sake but, above all, to those with whom we share the faith that has been passed on to us by our parents, grandparents, families and friends.
Hopefully, we may also encourage others, especially the youth in the Church, the young and enthusiastic heralds of faith to harness and use their gifts so that they may achieve their fullest human potential and, in so doing, enrich the lives of others.
Is there someone you would like to record with on a future album?
As a foil to our voices I think we’d ideally like to record with a lady. Who would she be? Well, we have the pleasure of Moya Brennan on our new album but if we had the chance to record more with another artist……..as a wild card it might be Lady Gaga (she’s already duetted with Tony Bennett). Closer to home, our own Irish-born Soprano, Ailish Tynan, who is making a real name for herself in the music world. She’s also a great personality and full of fun. She’d be perfect to work with.
What’s your favourite piece on the new album?
My favourite piece is Ave Verum by Karl Jenkins. It’s mellow, comforting, and Jenkins has written a beautiful haunting melody which, I feel, speaks to the very soul.
But, there’s something for everyone on the album, we hope. Content is as follows:
- Morning Has Broken
- Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
- Nearer My God to Thee click here for a brief clip
- The Lord is my Shepherd (Howard Gooddall….Vicar of Dibley BBC fame)
- Be Thou My Vision (with guest Moya Brennan)
- You Raise Me Up
- Lord of the Dance
- Ave Maria (Bach-Gounod)
- Alleluia (Pachabel’s Canon)
- Down in the River to Pray
- Ave Verum (Karl Jenkins)
- Cead mile Failte
- Panis Angelicus (acappella Cassciolini)
- Halleujah Chorus (Handel’s Messiah)
- Bonus Track: Eleanor Rigby
What concerts have you planned for the future?
We are going to visit the USA in November just after Thanskgiving for a long weekend to perform three concerts. One in Galveston, one near Houston and the final concert in Omaha. The last concert is a fundraising concert for a Jesuit mission on an Indian Reservation which grew out of an ecumenical contact with Rev Harold Good, a Presbyterian minister from Belfast. Proof, if proof were needed, that music is a bridge where different traditions can cross and meet and engage. After that there’s three Christmas concerts in Belfast, Derry and Newcastle.
Dates, times and details can be found on our website www.thepriests.org.