When David Delargy, Eugene O’Hagan and Martin O’Hagan, first began singing together at their Catholic grammar school in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, they never imagined that, 30-odd years later, they would sign a record deal with a major music label long after becoming fully frocked priests with their own parishes.
“It came out of the blue for everybody,” said the Rev. Delargy in a recent phone interview. “My parishioners were really taken aback at first, but then they were really interested in everything that was happening. They were thrilled that it was ‘their priest,’ something they could speak of with pride because it put their parish on the map.”
The Priests’ recorded repertoire includes classical hymns by composers such as Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean Sibelious, Joseph Haydn and Edward Elgar. They’ve released three albums, the latest being 2010’s “Noel,” their first Christmas album. Delargy said he has a broad interest in music.
“Every genre has its charm,” he said. “After being raised in the Catholic tradition, I tapped into the wealth of Irish folk songs. Through training, I’ve been exposed to Italian and German opera, but only at an amateur level. I like to dip into contemporary music, too.”
The Priests will be performing Tuesday in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.
When you to see entertainers who also happen to be Roman Catholic priests, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their singing carries a strong connotation of worship, even in a secular venue with paid attendance.
“When we do religious pieces, it doesn’t matter if we’re in a church or a hall or someone’s house,” Delargy said. “When you sing songs of that nature, it has to come from the heart, it has to be genuine. It’s entertaining, but there’s also something profound going on at a deeper level. But then we’ll sing some (secular) Italian songs, and those are strictly for pleasure, and there’s value in that as well.”
Despite their newfound fame, The Priests have not succumbed to a conventional rock star schedule. They tour internationally once per year, and then only for one month at a time. After that, they go back to their parishes to do the work they’d been doing before Sony came calling.
“A month is about all the time we can take away from our respective duties,” he said. “We might make a few other appearances throughout the rest of the year, but it will always be local, somewhere in Ireland, or France, anyplace that’s within a day’s journey.”
Yet even before he became a touring baritone (the O’Hagans are tenors), Delargy had visited the U.S. several times, both for holiday purposes and to fulfill his priestly mission. For instance, he once worked as a counselor in a program where Irish teen-agers would come live with American teen-agers in Alliance, Ohio, for a short period of time.
“You know Northern Ireland, there’s a lot of sectarian bigotry between Catholics and Protestants,” he said. “So we picked out some kids with leadership qualities and brought them to America, because American kids don’t have those prejudices. They don’t care if you’re a Catholic, a Protestant, a Methodist, or a Baptist. This is something that couldn’t have been done in Ireland. We needed to put them in a completely new situation, and it worked very well. (The Irish kids) formed lifelong friendships and came home with a new outlook, which they were able to share with their peers.”
The Priests have said that one of the nice things about touring is it gives people the opportunity to meet “the men behind the cloth.” However, that isn’t a reference to people who view the Catholic priesthood with suspicion due to recent scandals. For Delargy, it simply means it allows people to understand that priests are flesh-and-blood people.
“There’s a tendency to speak of the priest as belonging to a different species,” he said. “Because we’re up there, being remote, doing sacred things. In my own parish, I’ll call a parishioner and ask to speak to someone in the house, and they’ll yell, ‘It’s the priest!’ I’d rather they’d say, ‘It’s Father David!,” and be someone with a name and a personality. It’s important to connect through our shared humanity.”
The Priests don’t have any immediate plans to record a new album (although a movie about them is currently in development), but they’re still expanding their musical repertoire.
“We’re exploring some new sacred music,” he said. “But we’re also looking at secular music, too, that has an underlying spiritual theme. You can take it at face value, or if they want to look for another level of meaning, that’s available, too.”