Belfast Telegraph

MBEs for singing trio The Priests 'came out of blue'

The Priests performing at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast
The Priests performing at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Singing trio The Priests say they are "hugely honoured" to have been awarded MBEs by the Queen.

Fr Eugene O'Hagan alongside his brother Fr Martin O'Hagan and their friend, Fr David Delargy, have been rewarded for their services to music and charity in Northern Ireland.

Eleven years after signing a recording contract with Sony, the classical music sensations - who are all full-time clergymen - have enjoyed a remarkable chart-topping musical career on both sides of the Atlantic.

The multi-platinum sellers' first album in 2008 sold more than three million copies, making it the fastest-selling classical debut of all time.

Last year The Priests performed at the Festival of Families concert for Pope Francis in front of an audience of 75,000 people in Dublin's Croke Park.

Fr Eugene (60) is one of two vicars-general in the Diocese of Down and Connor and also diocesan chancellor. Speaking from the family home in Londonderry yesterday, he said the honour had come "completely out of the blue".

"While this is being given to us for our music and charity outreach, it's also recognition that music crosses all boundaries especially in our own society which has in the dim and distant past been affected by all kinds of prejudices," he said.

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"Like sport, music has been able to drive a road through that and it has been a great experience for us in helping to do that."

Fr Eugene said he is hoping the honour will be a chance for the group to meet the Queen for the third time.

"We first met her at Hillsborough Castle with President Mary McAleese and then again at Buckingham Palace at a gathering of Irish artists and musicians ahead of President Michael D Higgins' visit to Britain in 2014.

"On that occasion she spoke with us directly for a good 20 minutes. At the end of it she said that she should have asked us to sing but then added that it would be a pleasure postponed to another time.

"We asked if the corgis would be joining us but she said they would be too frightened by the crowd. We also chatted about Pope Francis, whom she was due to meet later in that week."

Fr Martin (56), who is PP of Newtownards and Comber, was the first of the trio to receive the news.

"When I got the letter I had to sit down and take stock. I didn't hear from the other two for a while but they were very gracious until they realised that they had got one too."

Ballymena man Fr David (56), who is in charge of the Lough Shore parishes, said the MBE was "a very big surprise".

"It's a compliment which is sincerely meant and coming from the Palace makes it doubly special," he added.

Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor said yesterday: "The Priests, who have nurtured their wonderful gifts and talent for music from their early days together as students in St MacNissi's, Garron Tower, through their period of priestly formation in seminary, and in subsequent years alongside their priestly ministry within the Diocese of Down and Connor, have become known across the world for their harmonious singing.

"Music, the arts and culture enable us to transcend and engage with and celebrate the mystery and beauty of life. These three priests have been given a platform to reach out to and inspire diverse audiences and communities across the globe, from all faiths and traditions, united in their common love of music.

"The honour that they have received pays particular tribute to their generous charity work effected and realised through the Priests Charitable Trust as they continue to reach out in support to those in need."

New Year's Honours

Bill Eames, BEM

Second World War RAF veteran Bill Eames has been awarded the British Empire Medal. 

The 96-year-old former RAF Flight Lieutenant has been honoured for his services to the Royal Air Forces Association and his community work in Fermanagh.

Bill, who is from Enniskillen, took his first flight in an aircraft back in 1936 when a flying circus visited his home town. 

The former Portora pupil joined the RAF in 1941 and took part in the D-Day landings.

Mr Eames said yesterday: “It is an honour for me to receive this award, as having had direct associations with the Royal Air Force, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, the Aircrew Association, the Royal British Legion and the Royal Air Forces Association continuously since 1941, it helps bring attention to the work of the Royal Air Forces Association, especially the Fermanagh Branch, and their care for the welfare of ex-RAF personnel in my home County Fermanagh.”

Ciara Nicholl, MBE

The mother of a Co Fermanagh girl who died of a rare brain disorder three years ago, says she is humbled after being awarded an MBE for services to bereaved families in the UK and Ireland.

Eight-year-old Ellie Nicholl from Enniskillen is believed to have been the only child in Ireland to have suffered from the rare progressive neurological condition H-ABC syndrome, which left her unable to walk or speak.

After her death, Ciara and Billy founded Ellie’s Retreat, a charity which offers free respite breaks for families who have suffered the loss of a child.

Located at Castle Archdale caravan park, Ellie’s Retreat is a static mobile, providing bed linen, towels and a small welcome pack of groceries.

Since opening in March 2017, Ellie’s Retreat has welcomed 86 families from across Ireland and the UK between St Patrick’s Day and Halloween each year.

But Ciara says her MBE was a complete shock. “As I often say to people, we don’t do this for recognition but it is an honour that someone has gone to the trouble of putting me forward.”

Tracy Hamilton, MBE

A director of Mash Direct, Tracy Hamilton (59) has been the driving force behind the Comber-based agri-food company which has now become a household name.

She will be rewarded with an MBE for her contribution to the industry in Northern Ireland.

The Co Down-based family-owned business along the shores of Strangford Lough was founded by Tracy and Martin Hamilton in 2004.

Mrs Hamilton was the first woman to sit on the Board of NIFDA and also a board member of Food NI.

She sits on the committees of NI Heritage Gardens and the Irish Tree Society and is also an active volunteer on the Mencap Special Events Committee and has been organising high profile events for Mencap since 1986.

The Mash Direct director was also recognised as Outstanding Business Woman of the Year at the Women in Business Awards in 2015 and SME Director of the Year at the Northern Ireland Director of the Year awards in 2013.

Alastair Hamilton, CBE

Invest NI Chief Executive Alastair Hamilton will receive a CBE for services to economic development in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hamilton, who announced his plan to stand down from the role earlier this year, will have his last official day in the post at the end of December.

The father-of-four said that he was “delighted” to be awarded the honour.

“I received a letter in the post a few weeks ago and it came as a huge surprise,” said Mr Hamilton.

“It’s a real honour. It has been an honour, too, to have served the place I call home for 10 years and I’m humbled and absolutely delighted by the award,” he said.

The 54-year-old added: “It has been a privilege to work in the role and I’m leaving with a level of pride in how far Northern Ireland has come in inward investment and export growth, despite the economic down turn.

“I’m delighted to receive the award and I’d also like to pay tribute to all the staff who have done such wonderful work.”

Aaron Hughes, MBE

Northern Ireland football legend Aaron Hughes will be awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to football.

The veteran defender, who is originally from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, retired earlier this year after Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualifier win over Belarus.

Hughes, who made his international debut in 1998 against Slovakia, won 112 caps for his country, including 48 as captain. He also played for Newcastle United, Fulham and Aston Villa.

Irish FA president David Martin said: “Aaron is very deserving of this recognition and on behalf of the Irish Football Association I congratulate him on receiving the honour. He had an outstanding career at the highest level and represented our country with distinction on 112 occasions.

“Aaron is one of the all-time Northern Ireland sporting greats. He demonstrated a remarkable consistency throughout his 22-year professional career.

“He was never red carded and is a true role model for any young player looking to be a full-time footballer.”

Wilma Erskine, OBE

The former general manager of Royal Portrush Golf Club, Wilma Erskine, has been awarded an OBE for services to tourism and golf.

The 60-year-old led the campaign to bring the hugely successful Open Championship to her home club in July, generating an estimated £100m for the Northern Ireland economy.

Having previously managed Portadown and Massereene golf clubs, the Ballymoney native retired from her 33-year Royal Portrush role as secretary manager immediately after bringing The Open to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

When she arrived at Royal Portrush at the age of 26, income was an estimated £36,000 in green fees per year and membership was in decline.

Wilma’s ambition was to turn Royal Portrush into a business and she certainly achieved that goal.

Last year the club took £2.2m in green fees with a £5m turnover. Wilma is now involved in several golf related consultancy projects, including with the Galgorm resort and Castle golf club.

Mike Todd, BEM

Former Down Royal boss Mike Todd will receive a BEM for services to Horse Racing and Business in Northern Ireland.

The 59-year-old said that he hadn’t known “anything at all” about his nomination but added that it was “a tremendous honour” for both himself and the industry.

“It’s great to have recognition for the work we put in,” he said.

“My mother trained race horses, my grandfather bred horses. I’m third generation horse racing; I grew up in horse racing.”

He added: “I managed Down Royal race course for 23 years and we took horse racing in Northern Ireland from zero to hero.”

Mr Todd, who’s been working as a business consultant for the last year, said there was a “great opportunity to pull us out of the racing backwater we’d become”.

He continued: “All I wanted to do was make a difference and that’s reflected in the good state the industry is currently in.”

Fr Kevin Mullan, BEM

Drumquin priest Fr Kevin Mullan has been awarded the British Empire Medal for services to inter-church collaboration and community relations in Northern Ireland.

Thirty-five years ago Fr Mullan joined in an historic handshake with Presbyterian minister Reverend David Armstrong, who made the short walk across the road in Limavady to his Catholic neighbours in Christ The King chapel to grasp the priest’s hand in friendship.

It was a simple goodwill gesture that, according to Fr Mullan, neither of the two clergymen ever dreamed would become an iconic moment in the history of Northern Ireland.

“It became an iconic moment for Northern Ireland because it inspired a lot of goodness,” the priest said in 2014, reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the simple gesture of reconciliation.

Fr Mullan, who has suffered from ill-health, has over the past year reduced his clerical duties.

He underwent a triple bypass operation in 2018.

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