'Father Ted had Eurovision ambitions - ours are global'
Three singing priests from the North look like being our next worldwide music phenomenon. Damian Corless meets them
'We're like the Ronseal advert. We do what it says on the tin." So say this year's tip for the Christmas top of the pops in Britain's albums' charts, The Priests. The three parish priests from Northern Ireland suspect that they were assigned the plain name "because that's what they called us in the record company office".
The record company in question is Epic, a division of Sony, and in the spring of this year Fathers David Delargy and Eugene and Martin O'Hagan (who are brothers) put their names to a deal worth a reputed €1.3m.
There have been all-priests shows before, and there were Doubting Thomases, but the record label has put its full weight behind the project.
The producer is Mike Hedges who has worked with U2, The Manic Street Preachers and The Cure. Top photographer David Bailey snapped the photos and the trio have signed to Eminem's former management company.
As for the music itself, they say: "It just hit all the right notes. They are songs that have been passed from mother to son and daughter over the generations.
"There is such a rich seam of music there. To be honest, we could have done an album of purely Irish songs.
"We gave Mike Hedges a list of 60 songs and he picked the selection." Hedges' hitlist features standards such as 'Ave Maria', 'Panis Angelicus', 'O Holy Night' and 'Be Still My Soul'. The trio recorded the collection in Rome, and a preview clip of 'Pie Jesu' has become this year's most viewed clip on YouTube.
Father David Delargy says: "It's quite exciting. The parishioners are saying I'm keeping an eye on you on YouTube. Of course, Pope John Paul II paved the way in the use of new communications technology like YouTube." (The late John Paul II embraced new technology even before the advent of YouTube when he started up a mobile phone texting service inviting the faithful to read an uplifting message every day.)
The Priests' album of religious standards will hit the shelves in 37 countries over the coming weeks, and it's expected to shoot to the top of the charts in Ireland and Britain. According to Father Eugene: "We're an organic creation. We're not a manufactured band. We're as much a social affair as a business.
"Myself and Martin first met David at a school called MacNissi's College outside Larne in the early 1970s. We were known as 'Holy, Holy, Holy' by our classmates because, if we weren't singing, we were talking about our plans to join the priesthood."
It was the golden era of Top Of The Pops and the three of them tuned in religiously.
Recalling that decade, Father David says: "I was a big fan of The Police and John Denver. Others I like would be Mary Black, who's celebrating 25 years as a recording artist, and The Corrs."
Another singer of a similar vintage is Moya Brennan of Clannad, who chimed in with the trio when they recorded a performance at St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh two months ago.
The show will be broadcast across the United States at the end of this month.
The trio, who are all in their forties, recognise that they were amongst the last generation to join the priesthood when to do so was universally appreciated as a desirable career move.
Father David says: "It was still traditional back then. It was different. There were many vocations when we joined. A young person joining the priesthood would have been given a great deal of support from family and friends.
"That's not there now. Young people would be actively discouraged from joining the priesthood."
The O'Hagans and David Delargy met in their early teens and completed their seminary training at the Gregorian University in Rome, where their attractive blend of voices, two tenors (Fathers Eugene and Martin) and a light baritone (Father David), earned them an invite to perform the sacred liturgy for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
According to the MD of Epic Records, Nick Raphiel, the man who made a star of Charlotte Church: "I've never had this reaction to anything I've been involved with. Nothing in my life.
"These guys are presenting something that's part of people's lives and you can't buy a copy of what they're doing. It's a memento."
Life for the three parish priests at the moment is "frenetic" and "intense". With their globe-trotting now a full-time activity, Father Martin says: "It is hard on the voice. The pressurised atmosphere of airplanes certainly doesn't help. The body has to be rested."
He chuckles when he says: "We're a bit like athletes in that sense."
They may be on the verge of becoming this year's most unlikely pop stars, but Fathers David, Eugene and Martin are all parish priests with responsibilities to their flocks in the diocese of Down and Connor.
Father David says: "While it is all very exciting, you do welcome getting back to your parish and to your normal duties. It keeps you grounded.
"We have to consider the wisdom of conventional tours. We know that our first responsibililty is to be there for our parishioners."
With this in mind, the trio had a clause inserted into their contract stipulating that their clerical duties must get priority over all other considerations. All promotional activity will be shelved if they're needed back home.
While it has become routine for artists to namecheck "God" on their album credits, The Priests stop short of that.
They do, however, give thanks to the recently retired Bishop of Down And Connor, Patrick Walsh. Bishop Walsh was regarded by some as a hard-line traditionalist, but the trio found him extremely supportive of their musical ambitions.
Father Eugene says: "Bishop Walsh always stressed that music is a great gift, as is the gift of the priesthood. He always encouraged the view that the two are integrated."
The alternative titles attributed to the trio include Priestlife and Father Ted -- The Musical. According to Father David: "Father Ted had Eurovision ambitions. Our ambitions are global."
The performance which they recently recorded in Armagh will go out on 354 American TV stations at the end of this month.
What are they going to do with all the money? Father David says: "One of the positives is that we'll find ourselves in a position to support charitable causes.
"We have a debt to our families, who have been so supportive. Our parents are getting elderly. But we also have another family, which is the family of our diocese. We will have to sit down and discuss what to do."
And finally, to a burning issue of yesteryear. The 1970s folk mass. A good thing or an unspeakable evil?
Father David smiles: "It was of its time."
The Priests' debut album is out on Epic/Sony. For more info visit www.thepriests.com