WITH their sincere renditions of hymns, Christmas carols and uplifting music in Latin and in English, The Priests have attracted a widespread audience since they stepped into the public eye in 2008 with their debut album.
But Fathers Martin and Eugene O’Hagan, brothers from Claudy, Co Londonderry, and their childhood friend Father David Delargy, from Ballymena, were singing together long before they entered the recording studio.
“We began singing together in 1974,” Martin reflects, from the comfort of an armchair at his parish in Newtownards. “David was my classmate at St MacNissi’s College, Garron Tower.
“At the age of 11 we were singing in school productions and in the choir. The big thing was Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. It was fantastic - a lifesaver in the midst of dark November and December evenings.”
Martin’s musical brother Eugene got roped in, and luckily they were blessed with great - some would say angelic - voices.
Their voices blend together wonderfully, creating enviable harmonies replete with emotion; the chosen religious melodies and lyrics they favour have been passed down the generations.
These are men of faith in an increasingly secular world, making their way in what can be a cynical and ruthless industry. They have, therefore, a rare appeal, a certain integrity.
Things took off for the Priests in 2008 when they were approached by Nick Raphael, managing director at Epic (a division of Sony) who was looking for suitable artists to record a Latin Mass. Word of mouth led him to the Northern Irish trio: Raphael was hooked after hearing a mobile phone recording of them singing.
The first album was produced by Mike Hedges, who has worked with U2, Dido and the Manic Street Preachers.
It was released in 30 countries worldwide, went platinum in Ireland, the UK, Sweden and Norway, and went gold in New Zealand, Canada and Spain
In Ireland alone it sold more than one million copies and the demand for concerts grew and grew. This put a certain stress on the clergymen who already have fulltime jobs.
Martin, Eugene and David are committed to their lives as priests, with responsibility for their respective parishes and the usual round of marriages, funerals, masses and baptisms.
“We are like tightrope walkers,” says Father Martin. “We do a balancing act between our duties as priests and our singing. But we see the two as very much interconnected.
“We aren’t on a crusade, but certainly much of what we sing has a religious message. But we want the music to be for everybody - people of all backgrounds and creeds.”
There have been awkward moments. Journalists have been quick to quiz them on scandals within the church and to ask them to make pronouncements on abortion and other issues of potential controversy. But they have remained insistent that they will not be making grand statements on behalf of Catholicism; their purpose here is to entertain, not to dictate. They aren’t out to convert errant popstars, evangelise or come over all bling and rockstar. They don’t do gimmicks or trashing of hotel rooms.
When photographer David Bailey met them to take some arty pictures he asked what three grown men like them were doing still believing in God. They took it in their stride; they’ve heard it before. Among other things they’ve been dubbed ‘Father Ted: The Musical’ and ‘Priestlife’. But these men of the cloth haven’t been put off course one iota.
And while stepping into the limelight has not been without its challenges, it has, of course, also afforded them moments of euphoria that they could little have anticipated.
The Priests were privileged to be allowed to record some of their much vaunted debut album in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in one of the ornate side chapels. This allowed them to catch a certain peace and stillness that is, somehow, deeply spiritual.
“One night when recording was finished we had the opportunity to walk around St Peter’s on our own - usually it is so packed with tourists.
“The sound of that silence was so beautiful. And we captured some of that on the first album.
‘The producer told us to be still when we had finished singing and the sound reverberated around the Basilica and then this beautiful, spiritual silence descended - it was perfect.”
Second album Harmony was followed by Christmas compilation Noel; a fourth album is due for release in 2012. In April they embark on another American tour. (Martin says he is getting his “canoe, snow shoes and skies ready” for the latter expedition.)
But the Irish tour comes first and the Priests arrive at Belfast’s Waterfont Hall on December 19.
“The touring can be hard because there is one of us who snores but - oh boy - I’d better keep that a secret.”
Who is the snorer I persist? “David. But he’s been very good, he gave Eugene and I a whole pile of ear plugs.”
Father Martin’s personal favourites in their repertoire are, in no particular order: O Holy Night, the traditional Irish Blessing (a “gorgeous, gorgeous piece of music”), Panis Angelicus (“hauntingly beautiful”) and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.
“But I also am very fond of You Raise Me Up,” he confesses of the Westlife hit. “Brendan Graham wrote the music and we’ve sung it on several occasions.”
Martin is such a lovely, affable and composed person to speak to. What he, Eugene and David offer is beautiful delivery of sacred music and a certain sincerity. And they are eager to please: “You want to do your best to engage the audience and to give them an evening that uplifts them.
“It’s a great joy to be able to sing a song and to sing it well, and to have this instrument with you wherever you go,” he says carefully.
“You can see how the music draws people in and lifts people’s hearts.”
Even if you don’t share their faith, it’s hard not to find something of beauty in the Priests’ meticulous, sensitive delivery of timeless music.
n The Priests, Waterfront Hall, Belfast, December 19. Visit www.waterfront.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 334 455.