Page last updated at 08:25 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Talking Shop: The Priests

The Priests at Abbey Road
The trio recorded parts of their new album at Abbey Road Studios

When The Priests launched their recording career last year, many assumed they were a gimmick - a desperate attempt to sustain a recession-hit recording industry.

But the trio's self-titled debut album sold 29,000 copies in its first day of release - and went on to be named the fastest-selling classical debut of all time by the Guinness Book Of Records.

Fathers Eugene and Martin O'Hagan, and Father David Delargy have subsequently divided their time between playing to fans around the world and ecumenical duties in their Northern Ireland Catholic parishes.

With their second album, Harmony, sitting in the UK top 40, Father Eugene talked to the BBC about shedding the stuffy image of the Church in general, and The Priests' chart battle with the Pope.

How have you coped with the success of the last year?
Well, the success of the album has been totally unexpected. It's been exciting, it's been thrilling, it's been challenging for us to get our diaries worked out together, because we're in three different parishes.

How does the music industry compare to the life of a priest?
We've met some wonderfully, wonderfully gifted people, who've been nothing less than inspirational to us, because they're so dedicated to their work. Often they're people who don't share our backgrounds - but I think that has broken down an awful lot of perceptions we might have had, and that they might have had about us. So it's been a real good two-way kind of experience.

Our main worry is that he'll begin to tour. We'd really be up against it then
Father Eugene O'Hagan on The Pope's rival chart career

What are those preconceptions? What's been changed in your minds and in others?
We've gone into this whole world of Sony and the music industry, which is usually linked to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But it's not been like that, at least not in our experience.

And I suppose there's a perception that people might have of clergy, if they're not watching Vicar of Dibley or Father Ted. They might think that ministers might be terribly serious. But I would like to think that hasn't been their experience of us.

Are you saying you're like Father Ted? Are the Church funds just resting in your account?
Ah no - we're not like him, and we're not stuffy. We're happily in between!

Which one of you is most likely to turn into Father Jack?
Well, let me see now... The other two are not listening so I suppose I could mention either of their names - but I'm not going to! I think if any of us were ever heading in that direction, I think the other two would pull us back from the brink.

The Priests at the Classical Brits
The Priests' first album was certified platinum in less than a month

This year, you're in a chart battle with Pope Benedict. Who's going to win?
Well, of course, the Holy Father is not the first Pope to bring out a record. I think Alma Mater, his album, is very different from the kind of music on our album - so there's plenty of room for both. I know that there's an eclectic mix of new compositions on Alma Mater that's quite unique. But if it comes down to the Pope and ourselves, we're all playing for the same team.

Our main worry is that he'll begin to tour. We'd really be up against it then.

With all this promotional work, when are you going to find time to write your Christmas sermon?
Oh gosh, that's going to have to begin earlier than usual. Either that, or it'll be at the very last minute - in the hours that we can squeeze in between writing Christmas cards and getting things organised in the parish, decorating the tree and things like that.

Can you give us a preview?
The thing about Christmas is, everybody knows the message, so it doesn't take too much explaining. Hopefully my sermon will just give people one or two things to think about. Christmas is a time of peace at a time in our lives when there's much talk about conflict and war and terrorism. We should maybe focus on a prayer for peace for everyone.

Are there many people in your parish serving in Iraq or Afghanistan?
There are one or two - not too many from my own, small Catholic community, but there are others in the town who belong to the Church of Ireland or the Presbyterian faith, who have sons away in Afghanistan. So they're naturally very concerned and worried that they'll return safely and come home.

We often pray that things will work out for Afghanistan and Iraq, not just at Christmas, because we've had our share of turmoil in Northern Ireland which we, as priests, have worked amidst for the past 20 years.

The Priests
Father Eugene (far left) preaches in Ballyclare, County Antrim

Have there been occasions where people say they have changed their outlook on life after listening to your music?
We have had emails and letters and texts from people who have said that. People who don't share our faith whatsoever, and may never have had contact with an institutional church of any description, but who've said the music has touched them, just a little bit, when they least expected it.

What about the opposite reaction? Have you come across people who dislike religion, or the Church, and are determined to confront you about it?
We haven't come across anyone who's pointed a finger and said, 'what you're doing is offensive' - but we're not so naive as to think it doesn't exist. It does, and I'm sure if someone had the opportunity they would.

What we do is not in any way crusade-like. We want simply to allow people to share our love of music. And if people don't have faith or any particular religious viewpoint, that's fine, I respect that. I would just hope they, in turn, respect that we have an equal right to express our own views and aspirations, gently and un-aggressively, through the medium of music.

In the liner notes for the CD, you discuss in detail the musical history behind each individual track. Is that as important to you as the religious message?
There are many facets to everyone - and maybe the album has destroyed that little preconception that ministers and clergymen aren't real people. There's not necessarily a deep, religious reason behind the songs we chose for the album. they have simply touched us in some way, and we want to share it. Like any fan of music.

Do people come to your church just to hear you chant the Mass now that you're a renowned singer?
I think a few have come alright. The release of our debut album has not been an antidote, shall we say, to the declining attendance in any of our parishes. But, having said that, there have been occasions when people in the parish have brought relatives and friends who have been staying.

Do they bring CDs for you to sign?
Oh yes! And they ask if I can get the other two to sign it as well, so we've set that up, where we can make that possible. The album has had very practical ecumenical benefits for each and everyone of us, which is a very happy consequence of a very simple love of music.

Harmony is out now on Sony Records.

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