Singing priest Martin O'Hagan on Lady Gaga and the Queen
One-third of global superstars The Priests talks to Una Brankin about life as a cleric and performer, as well as all those famous people he's met
The empty auditorium of the Grand Opera House is a cocoon of calm on a rushed, rainy afternoon in Belfast. The Very Reverend Father Martin O'Hagan and I are relaxing amid the red velvet and gilding, glad of half an hour in the low-lit quiet, with our constantly pinging mobiles phones - "a form of modern terrorism", as aptly described by the singing priest - on silent.
It will be a very different scene in just under a fortnight's time when he takes to the stage with his brother, Fr Eugene O'Hagan, and their long-time friend Fr David Delargy, for The Priests' Easter concert, performing with their renowned Cappella Caeciliana choir, which has recorded four liturgical albums with the trio.
In the meantime, the well-groomed Fr O'Hagan (51), in neat civvies, is enjoying the view of the stage from the audience's point of view, and I'm enjoying his company. Softly and precisely spoken, he's such a serene presence I could almost tell him my confession, in the Catholic sense, that is. Then again, priests don't usually crack jokes or sing in the confessional box, and I am being treated to both. Well, it is only a snatch of a song - I Must Have Done Something Good, from The Sound Of Music - but to hear that beautiful tenor voice at close range is something special.
We've been chatting about the famous musical, now celebrating its 50th year, and I wonder if he saw Lady Gaga's tribute at the Oscars.
"Oh yes, she was brilliant," he says, round eyes lighting up. "It was an interesting change from her normal style; she adapted to it very well. I've sung those songs since I was four - Mummy taught us all the beautiful music from it.
"Come to think of it, how about Lady Gaga and The Priests? Now that would something never seen before!"
The Priests have the advantage over acts like Lady Gaga of not having to worry about going out of fashion - "our music has been tried and tested for centuries," says Fr Martin - and with record sales of 3.5 million, they don't have to think of reinventing themselves with every album. Their debut album The Priests (2008) set a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling classical debut of all time, surpassing even renowned stars like Luciano Pavarotti or Katherine Jenkins.
Like the score of The Sound of Music, they're timeless.
"That film was all the rage when I was a young boy and I remember my mother taking me by the hand into hospital wards to sing songs from it to the patients, to cheer them up," he recalls.
"It was so uplifting. Mummy was very musical; she was a great pianist and had a great ear. She could play without sheet music and was a wonderful interpreter; she could get under the skin of the music, to lift people's hearts, and she always encouraged music as a hobby for us.
"She and my father have passed on now, God rest them. Still keeping a little eye on us, I'm sure."
Fr Martin grew up with his twin sister, Joan, and his older brothers - co-star Fr Eugene and his twin Francis - in Claudy and the Waterside area of Londonderry. Their mother Joan was a nurse, their father a long-serving civil servant with the Department of Agriculture. Francis Jnr still lives in the family home.
"We have a garden there which I like to escape into when I get the chance," says Fr Martin. "It's a wonderful place to empty the mind. Francis is no doubt delighted I spend so much time in it - it's quite large and I love gardening. He says it's therapeutic, which I'd have to agree with."
As well as gardening, Fr Martin writes poetry and loves art and antiques (he makes a mental note to buy The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, set in the art world, to read on his travels).
"Anything we had of value at home was kept in the 'good room', with the piano - that's where we always sang for visitors," he recalls. "Yes, I do like antiques. Old furniture always tells a story, and I try to get out to the galleries when we visit different cities on tour. It's important to savour new surroundings, and it shows audiences you have made an effort."
Speaking of works of art, Fr Martin was blown away by the treasure trove that is Buckingham Palace on a recent visit there, and was equally impressed by its owner.
"We first met the Queen and Prince Philip at Hillsborough, with Mary McAleese; then we had a return visit to Buckingham Palace, in the midst of all this beautiful art. We had a 10 minute chat with the Queen - of course, David asked about the Corgis. We told her we were about to go to the Vatican to see 'Our boss' and she said 'Oh yes, a very different style of Pope, isn't he?'.
"I very much admire her. Her visit to the south was very healing. I also met Charles and Camilla in Ballyclare. He loves our music, and Camilla's a delightful person."
Overnight fame has also given The Priests carte blanche to meet superstars. Fr Martin chuckles at the memory of a recent encounter with Tom Jones, backstage at RTE's Late Late Show in Dublin.
"There were the three of us and Liam Brady (manager) standing at his dressing room door - his face when he opened it! He put out his hand out sort of nervously but then we got on very well indeed. He's a lovely man.
"Jose Carreras is lovely gentleman, too. There's an integrity about him and sense of courage; he overcame leukaemia. He pours himself into a piece. If I had a spirituality detector, I would have detected it on him. He does a lot of charity work."
A slight frown passes over the cleric's fine-featured face.
"It is wonderful to meet these people but it's just as meaningful to meet the people behind the scenes of our concerts - they're the backbone - and those who come to see us," he emphasises. "One lady told me she listens to us while she irons. Another told me she had us playing while she was giving birth - I said, 'Well, I hope it helped!'
"And, of course, the people of the parish have been so supportive, and there was a great sense of pride and encouragement in my former parish, in Cushendun. I'm singing 40 years now and people were so appreciative that this opportunity had come our way. It's part of God's plan."
He's grateful in particular for the services of retired clergy who help fill in for him at his parish of Newtownards and Comber when he's recording or on tour. (Fr Eugene O'Hagan is administrator of the parish of Ballyclare and Ballygowan, and Fr David Delargy is parish priest of the parish of Hannahstown). As committed to his pastoral work as ever, Fr Martin still visits poorly parishioners and last week sang O Danny Boy at mass for the sick, during a Clonard mission.
The daily duties of a Co Down clergyman are a world away from the Hollywood studios, where a film script for a biopic on The Priests, Raising The Roof, is being drafted by two writers, though the two parties have never met.
"They didn't want to meet us, so they could approach the story from an entirely fresh perspective but they have done a lot of research," explains Fr Martin. "We've written a reflective text for them, Soul Song, telling our story. They're looking at a slightly different angle now, going back to our earlier days, or the midst of the Troubles.
"It's a long process; I hope that in time it will happen, even as a cameo or short film. A lot of money and time and energy have been set aside for it. The Paul Potts film took a number of years."
So, which of the mooted Hollywood superstars would play Fr Martin?
"Oh, Brad Pitt - definitely - for me," he smiles. "George Clooney, I think it was, for Eugene, and for David it would have to be our own Liam Neeson."
"I do like to steal away to the cinema to relax and let my imagination be transported," he adds. "I really liked the Indian hotel film (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). I enjoy that time and that era, post-colonial, and the costumes and interiors and the colours."
He also enjoys cooking, but has had to curtail his love of rich food and fine wine since discovering his cholesterol level was at a dangerously high level - surprising for someone of a slight build. His risk of a heart attack was increased by his family history - his mother developed heart problems in her early 60s and had to lose three stone for bypass surgery. While his father lived well into his 90s, Joan died of heart failure at 72, a year after having a pacemaker fitted.
A radical change was therefore required in her son's eating habits, to avoid hereditary heart problems. By cutting out fatty foods, alcohol and red meat, and eating more fish and vegetables, his cholesterol level dropped to a healthier level by 2004, lowering his risk of a heart attack, but jumped back up when he became extremely busy as an adviser for religious education in 150 schools.
"I think stress can be a factor," he reflects. "My job as an education adviser meant a lot of driving and rushing around and it affected my health. I was prescribed a statin but had an adverse reaction right away - agonising pain around my liver - so I was put on an alternative one, Ezetrol.
"I had to cut out all the rich sauces, cheese and wine that I love. Now I have porridge for breakfast, less caffeine and more juice. I love walking, so I try to go for a long walk whenever possible."
He does allow himself a gin and tonic, however, to unwind after a performance. With such a hectic schedule - including an upcoming American tour and recording a new album of Irish music "to reflect our heritage" - he deserves a snifter.
"We're on a high after a performance so a G&T goes down nicely, but we don't imbibe too much when we're on tour and have three or four performances in a row. We sit down together for an hour or so before going to bed in the hotel. We might look back at a few issues and think about what we might do differently the next night, speaking very softly. It's very important to rest our voices."
The peace in the lower stalls is jolted by side door creaking open and a reminder of the next slot on The Priests' promotional agenda, a radio interview. Fr Martin takes his leave, promising to send regards from my mother to Fr David (who christened my nephews), and reflecting on how The Priests have helped change attitudes towards the clergy.
"I think we've helped to change the perception of what a priest is," he says. "People can see that we can laugh and have fun; it gives them a different insight. And of course what we do is an opportunity for people to experience the sacred - it's for everyone, not just the believers. To produce a blend which reaches people's hearts, that's very uplifting."
- The Priests play the Grand Opera House, Belfast, accompanied by the Cappella Caeciliana choir, on Monday, March 30, and Wednesday, April 1. For details, visit www.goh.co.uk
Holy trinity a global success ...
Since The Priests were recommended to an Epic Records talent scout in 2007, Fathers Martin O'Hagan, Eugene O'Hagan and David Delargy have become one of the most recognised and successful acts in both the religious and secular worlds.
Nicknamed 'Holy, Holy, Holy' for their religious - but non-sanctimonious - fervour at St MacNissi's College in Co Antrim, they have featured in every media forum from Time Magazine to the Jonathan Ross Show, exhibiting their good humour, and shared a stage with the Pope before a crowd of 80,000 in Hyde Park. Their music has also benefited others. They take home only a small percentage of their not inconsiderable profits, the vast majority of their royalties going into their charitable fund, which helps build schools in places like Uganda and Thailand, and are also used to help look after retired priests, and the homeless.
"As priests, it is important to live within our means," Fr Martin says, "and we do that quite comfortably. To redistribute the rest of our royalties elsewhere is, we believe, the right and proper thing to do."