Why Fr Ray is a step ahead of the rest on Dancing with the Stars

Why Fr Ray is a step ahead of the rest on Dancing with the Stars
Photograph Moya Nolan

The inside track is that there’s already a favourite for this year’s Dancing with the Stars – watch out for internet sensation and Britain’s Got Talent contestant Fr Ray Kelly, says Esther McCarthy.

He’s already shown the world his powerful and emotional singing voice, with a rendition of Hallelujah that turned him into an internet sensation. But is Fr Ray Kelly’s foxtrot as good as his falsetto?

One thing’s certain - he’s going to give it his best shot. Along with the other new names taking part in this year’s Dancing With the Stars, he’s spent recent weeks perfecting his moves - and revisiting his days of taking to the dancefloor as a young civil servant in Dublin.

“That time, the social life was the National Ballroom or the Ierne Ballroom,” he tells me. “And of course, the girls were on one side of the hall and the boys on the other. You’d be bopping and hoping you might get a dance or a date. I would have had a waltz or a jive, the old kind of dances that my mother taught me as a kid growing up, because we were a very musical family anyway.

"I was saying to someone the other day if I could try and get into my feet what I can put into my voice, I’d be doing very, very well! But I’m not sure, it’s going to take a long time.” Kelly’s path to the priesthood is a fascinating one. While many young men go straight into the seminary from school, he worked for eleven years in the civil service and at one point wasn’t even a committed Catholic.

“If I was home at the weekend I’d go to mass with my mother and father. But when I was in Dublin it was a different ballgame.”

It was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, a memorable occasion in the lives of so many, which proved to be cathartic for him, setting in train a decision that would utterly transform his life at the age of 29.

“Pope John Paul had a huge impact, and the following year I was one of a thousand young people who went over to thank him in Rome for his visit to Ireland, from the Catholic Youth Council.

I was invited to sing the song Danny Boy and I got presented with rosary beads. I started going to mass every morning And then I starting thinking: ‘Ray you could be up there doing what that guy’s doing’. It was going on and on, like a tug of war in your head. So eventually you have to talk to somebody about it.

Like many priests, it was a decision that was calling him but that he wrestled with for a couple of years. Having been impressed with visiting missionaries from The Sacred Heart when they came to his school many years earlier, he went to see them in Kiltegan in Co Wicklow, eventually joining them in their work in South Africa.

“I went for a live-in (to Kiltegan) and loved it, really loved the quietness and the prayer. I felt that if my vocation was to have a chance, I needed to get out of Dublin because I had too many friends in Dublin.” In what ways did his life change?

"In every way. I had a mortgage, I had a house, I had a car. I had a girlfriend. We parted as the best of friends. I remember selling my house within the week then. My mother and father were very much supportive and they kind of said: ‘Well, if that’s what you want to do, if you’re happy, we’re happy.’

"Even coming up to ordination, you’re kind of questioning are you doing the right thing. And yet somehow, somehow, all along the way, I felt I was drawn by it.”

A quick-witted and thoughtful man, Kelly has always brought his personality to his work. A keen fan of singing and musical theatre throughout his life, parishioners in Co Meath have long enjoyed his voice and known of his talent.

But it was a wedding video for a young couple, with new lyrics celebrating their day to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, that turned him into an internet sensation. Since it was first uploaded in 2014, it has been viewed over 72 million times. To this day, it’s still being found by 100,000 people every week.

Again, it set him on a new path - he released two albums and performed on Britain’s Got Talent. “I always had an interest in music but I never in my entire existence would have expected it to go to this level. That happened totally accidentally because of the Hallelujah wedding. It’s amazing, you know.

“Even the Everybody Hurts one from Britain’s Got Talent, that’s eleven or twelve million now.

After the Everybody Hurts one, I got several letters from people including a lady who wrote to me and she was up in the dead of the night with pain and she had her suicide letter written. For some reason she happened to go on YouTube and found it and she heard the last line: ‘You’re not alone’.

“It’s almost like, she said, the calmness of the Holy Spirit came over her. We just never really realise the effect of the things we say or do, how it affects other people.” Music, he says, has always been a part of his life. “Mum and dad were musical, mum played the piano and my dad played the accordion, they were singers as well.

"Then my brother and sisters were all musical. I never really played an instrument, but I used to love to sing and we were always put out there like little trophies to perform and sing a song or two for the aunts and uncles.”

He never felt he had a special talent but on moving to his civil service job, noticed that colleagues would encourage him to enter talent competitions on Friday nights out. “I’d win some and I’d lose some but it would be a good night out and we’d have a few pints.”

It was a hobby he honed on becoming a seminarian, and he smiles at the memory of starring in his first musical theatre show, The King and I, in Kiltegan. Later, as a curate in Navan, he would star in several shows. He chuckles as the memory of getting married on stage one night (in character, of course) for a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Dancing With the Stars has already been a joyful experience for him even before the live shows begin, and he has already made many friends among the follow contestants.

“I’d be up for something like that, even though for a long time I didn’t like reality TV shows. But then I went onto Britain’s Got Talent last year. That was through the Hallelujah YouTube clip, they’d spotted that. They were sending me emails but I said: ‘It’s all about judgement and I don’t want to do anything like that’.

"But you know, after doing Britain’s Got Talent last year, it was one of the most positive experiences of my life. So I’m kind of hoping that I can add this to that title as well.

“There is competition there. And that will be the case when the TV show starts, but everyone is behind everyone else. Everyone wants everyone to do well. We were all over there today doing the group dances. From watching Strictly and from watching Dancing with the Stars you could see there’s a great camaraderie.”

He is busy managing his commitments as a priest with his rehearsals and though it’s a demanding time, he’s loving it so far. “I’m in the very early stages but I’m enjoying it. It’s a lot, even for me to come up to Dublin it’s a two-hour drive, then head across to the Point.

"It’s three hours before I even start working on anything at all. I’m carrying a very painful leg at the moment, and it seems to be acting up more today than ever. It’s one of the little difficulties, but we’ll get over it. This year I said well lookit, I’m getting on (he is 66) and if I don’t do it now, it’ll never happen.”

Above all, he hopes it will give him an opportunity to show the other side of the priesthood. “I think it’s nice to be seen in the sense of we’re ordinary, human guys, doing the best we can.”

Dancing with the stars returns Sunday

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