Holy trio set for Belfast carol extravaganza

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Eugene O’Hagan and his brother Martin grew up in Claudy, Co Londonderry. It was while they were students at St MacNissi’s College, Garron Tower, in the 1970s that they befriended David Delargy, from Ballymena - and the trio were united by their Christian faith - all three would go on to be ordained as Catholic priests - and by a love of song - all, fortuitously, having been blessed with melodic voices of pleasant timbre and tone.

Little did they imagine that they would become the world’s first famous group of singing Catholic priests whose music has become adored throughout the Christian world and also hopefully uplifted those of other faiths and none.

Their debut album was produced by Mike Hedges - who has worked with U2 - and went platinum in Ireland and the UK. Second album Harmony, released in 2009, reached the No 1 spot in the Swedish charts. They released a Christmas album, Noel, in 2010, which debuted at No 3 on the US Top Classical Albums Chart. And the word now is that a scriptwriter is working on a film about their rise from the altar to fame (a rumour which Eugene confirms as fact - although he maintains it will not follow their biographies exactly and has yet to find a producer).

I speak to Fr Eugene from his parish in Ballyclare and he confides that the group have just recently returned from a US tour - many of their concerts packed out. At the moment they are preparing for their annual Christmas carol concert at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall; surely they do not need to rehearse, knowing all the carols and festive hymns so intimately?

“Well we like to perfect who’s doing what harmonies and so on. And we love to rehearse with our ten-piece band behind us,” says Eugene, whose favourite carol is O Holy Night.

As priests all three have unusual bespoke contracts that allow them to tour and record between continuing their pastoral work - a high-wire balancing act.

“We manage to juggle things. Our parishioners they feel real joy for us when they see us out there singing.

“They are happy that our work as priests has broadened out in a form that can reach a wider audience - when we’re singing we are singing to spread the word of God so in that way it is a part of our ministry.”

I ask Fr O’Hagan if the trio ever imagined their star ascending so high in the music world?

“Never, ever in our wildest dreams did we imagine being a part of something that would become as big as this.

“I never think of us as being famous,” says Eugene.

I tell Eugene that what they are doing as a group is spreading the word of God in an accessible way, a way that will perhaps reach more people than those who sit weekly on church pews.

“The beauty of music is that it is open and immediately accessible to all - it isn’t something that is only tailored to one kind of Christian denomination or religious affiliation, even if the subject matter is Christian - people of all faiths can enjoy this and be moved by it.”

It’s an enduring cliché - and one not entirely without foundation - that people in bands are always falling out, either over creative differences or just from spending too much time together in an over-heated tour bus as it rolls from city to city.

Being priests, and therefore exemplars of virtue, I tell Fr Eugene I am sure that there are no arguments among this holy trio.

He laughs at this: “Well look, we never encourage confrontation and we believe in discussion and compromise, but we do often have differences of opinion and in that regard we are really just like everybody else!

“We respectfully agree to differ on occasion! And so far so good,” he laughs again: “And sometimes we do have creative differences - but I’d say those differences and debates often lead to better song arrangements.”

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