THEY may outsell Madonna, but this record-breaking musical trio won't be giving up the day job. Claire Black meets The Priests to find out how they balance prayers and parish duties with red-carpet glamour and tour dates
IN THEIR chic black suits, shoes buffed to an immaculate shine, hair neat – with perhaps just a touch of gel – there's no missing the three priests emerging from a revolving door. And if it wasn't their number that makes them stand out, it might be the fact that they've got Classical Brits Artists' Passes hanging round their necks, making them look like rock stars in disguise. Actually, they've just come from a soundcheck at the Royal Albert Hall where they were preparing to perform alongside Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Katherine Jenkins.
Father Eugene O'Hagan, 48, his brother Father Martin O'Hagan, 45, and Father David Delargy, 44, are The Priests, two tenors and a baritone, the classical world's latest sensation. Their eponymous album, released only six months ago, is now on sale in more than 40 countries and it's gone platinum in many of them, with sales of around two million. They outsold Madonna and Beyonc last year, and, in the process claimed the Guinness world record for the fastest-selling classical album by a new group.
None of this information about sales and success came from the priests themselves, though. It's not that they don't know it (although it turns out they do tend to get much news of their progress from Classic FM), simply they're just far too modest, and a bit too giggly, to talk about it .
"Tickled pink", is all you'll get from Father Martin on their parishioners' reaction to their success. "Quietly proud," is Father David's description of his parents' response to their new-found fame. It's not exactly rock star hyperbole.
But that's because these three men are not rock stars: they really are priests. They each work in a diocese in or around Belfast, where they take Mass and First Holy Communion and visit the elderly and the sick, all the usual parish activities. No matter the album sales or the number of hits on YouTube, service is their priority. It's why their 1 million contract, signed with Sony BMG last April on the steps of Westminster Cathedral, states parish business comes before promotional activities. The Priests Foundation is currently being set up, so that a substantial amount of their earnings will go to charitable causes of the Priests' choice.
Ever since the priests emerged as a musical act there has been talk of gimmickry (it's the outfits that do it) and of "prayers being answered" for the struggling music industry, with a ready-made and untapped niche market – the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
The first accusation falls down a little when you bear in mind that all three began singing as boys and followed their own musical careers for more than 20 years without the interest of a record company. The second is less easy to dispute, but that's not to say that the men themselves haven't been surprised by the scale of the response to their collection of sacred songs and "uplifting" music.
"From time to time it's seemed like the icing on the cake," says Father Eugene with a characteristic twinkle, "but now we've got to the stage that it's the sparkle on the star on the angel sitting on top of the cherry on the icing on the cake. When we signed the contract back in April, never for one minute did we think the album was going to be as big as this. And it was only after we'd signed that the other Sony territories came on board (ensuring worldwide distribution], so thank goodness we'd signed it before then."
"Providential," says Father Martin, looking pleased, knowing it might've been harder to insist upon the continuing focus on their parishes if the record company had known just how successful they'd be.
"It has been providential in that regard," agrees Father Eugene. "Other artistes might be wondering 'why am I running half way round the world when these boys can pick and choose?' We have said, it's not a case of us getting used to the music business, it's more the music business getting used to us."
Date clashes do occur. Father David didn't attend a promotional trip to Canada because he was presiding over a funeral, and setting up a short tour of the UK and Ireland has been tricky. But the dates are now set and, as well as visits to Manchester and London, the priests will be performing in Glasgow. I warn them that Glasgow audiences are infamous.
"Are you trying to tell us that there might be a bit of heckling?" asks Father Martin, batting his eyelashes with mock innocence. You could say that, I offer.
"Oh well," chirps Father Eugene, "We'll be hoping to get them going with a bit of a sing-song. My dance routine is under wraps."
"He's undergoing intense training before we arrive on the stage in Glasgow," adds Father Martin, prompting yet more giggling.
Fathers Eugene and Martin are brothers, but there's a familiarity between the three men – they often speak at the same time and there's plenty of gentle teasing – that comes from spending so many years together. They met at school, St MacNissi's College near Carnlough in Co Antrim, they trained at the same seminary, going on to study together at Belfast's Queen's University, the Pontifical Irish College and the Gregorian University in Rome.
Their brand of easy-on-the-ears religious music is undeniably popular but still, I'm not sure that the Clyde Auditorium will ever have seen anything quite like it.
"It's not rock 'n' roll," says Father David, the dry wit of the three. "It's a very particular kind of repertoire – hymns, sacred songs. We're inviting people to come along and hear us sing hymns." He raises an eyebrow. "Three priests in their dog collars singing hymns. It is quite a unique kind of thing."
"There'll be a wee bit of banter as well," chimes Father Martin, plainly fearing that it's all sounding just a little too "Holy, Holy, Holy", the nickname the three acquired at school. "It'll be a good fun evening. They'll see a different side to us, it's not just the religious side."
They're good at the banter, quick-witted and funny, but they're also aware that reactions to clergy both in the press and the wider world are, at best, complicated at the moment. They're at pains to point out that they're not spokesmen for the Catholic Church, a role they concede that both they and their bishops had concerns about.
"Initially, like everyone else, they kind of held their breath, wondering how this would be received by the wider public," says Father Eugene, "because, let's face it, the Church in Ireland has got a fairly bad press for the things that have happened.
"The shock revelations about the effects of child sexual abuse and the very legitimate criticisms of how the Church has dealt with it have been the major focus. So much so that any priest who, in a sense, takes the risk of being more public is more likely to receive lack of support than any encouragement.
"But it must be said, we haven't received any kind of animosity or belligerence, even from the media in Ireland where there would usually be an antipathy."
Nevertheless topical questions have been "sprung" on them. "We had an interesting experience on a television programme in Montreal," says Father Martin. "We were asked some tricky questions about the Church's stance on contraception – the Pope had just been in Africa. I think we managed to field them reasonably well and with a certain lightness, because the next question was, 'Now, Fathers, what have you got in common with Beyonc?'. To which I said, turning to Eugene, 'Well, I suppose Eugene, we've got the good looks. And then Eugene said, 'Well, one thing we don't have is the bling'.
Mention of bling brings the conversation around to the Classical Brits and the red-carpet appearance which the three men were asked to make before the ceremony, where they were nominated for Best Album (in fact they were pipped at the post by the Scots Dragoon Guards).
"The last time I saw one of those (a red carpet] there was a bride coming up it," Father Eugene says with a roll of his eyes. "Bit of a change. We've no bling with us. We'll have to throw some sparkles on the old black, by accident. 'Oh, where did I get that?'"
"It'd have to be Swarovski," says Father David, with a smirk.
"Beautifully sewn in," chimes Father Martin.
And again, the three of them laugh.
• The Priests will be in concert at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on 15 June. Tickets are on sale now, priced at 30 and 40 plus booking fee. They're available online at livenation.co.uk and gigsinscotland.com, or by calling 0844 576 5483 and 0844 499 9990. Their album, The Priests, is out now. For details log on to www.the priests.com