THE Father Ted jokes did not come as a surprise.
“In Ireland, especially, people were inevitably going to see three singing clergymen as a gimmicky kind of thing,” says Father David Delargy, one of the three men of the cloth who perform together as The Priests (brothers Father Eugene and Father Martin O’Hagan complete the line-up).
“We used to have people going on about ‘My Lovely Horse’. That was expected. We saw the funny side.”
But The Priests are no joke. Performing mostly liturgical pieces, the triumvirate see music as an extension of their pastoral work — a way to bring a message of hope and humanity to those beyond the reach of conventional religion.
Nor is their success anything to jeer at, with sales of their three studio records now eclipsing three million (they plan to record a fourth long-player in 2016).
“We were selling a lot of albums in the early days especially and it did present us with some questions — ‘Well what are we doing to do with any music that comes in?’ ” says Delargy.
“We are not religious order priests,” he continues. “We haven’t taken a vow of poverty — people assume that because you’re priests, you have. We are the same as everyone else — we are self employed.”
Still, they appreciated that it would have been inappropriate to wallow conspicuously in their success.
Nobody begrudged their doing well. Splurging on sports cars and Rolexes would be a different matter, as they well understand.
“We stand for Gospel values. It would be a bit unseemly for us to pocket huge amounts of money when there is so much need and poverty in the world.
“We decided early on that we would establish the Priests Charitable Trust — profits from album sales and concerts would flow into that. And from there into various charities that are dear to our own hearts.
“That puts us in the nice position to being able to do good for various people in need. It is an immensely satisfying further bonus to what we do.”
As singing priests, the group face the challenge of balancing the spiritual and the accessible. They feel they have a responsibility to cut sober figures on stage.
At the same time, they understand audiences come to their performances expecting to be entertained.
“We call ourselves The Priests — we dress as priests. The fact we are priests is the heart of what we do musically. Music has always been a very important part of our lives in the ministry.
“But we don’t just perform sacred music. We do Italian pieces and songs in Irish. It is important to strike a balance.”
The trio are all based in the same diocese in Greater Belfast. They’ve sung together since they were teenagers (among fellow clergy they were known colloquially as ‘Priestlife’).
Their career as professional musicians began in 2007 when they signed a record deal with Sony Music, which had been mindful of the multi-platinum success of Chant: Music of Paradise by the Cistercian Monks Of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria.
The priests auditioned in London with an unplugged version of ‘Ave Maria’ — a song they had once performed for Pope John Paul II.
The record deal was in the post the next day.
“We saw music as something we did in our spare time,” says Delargy.
“Some priests play golf or read. Singing was our thing. Music has always been our hobby. We never imagined it would take off the way it did. Initially we didn’t feel the need to ask permission.
“Had we known how it was going to unfold and the demands it placed on us, we would have had a different opinion. At the beginning, we thought we were just doing something in our spare time as we saw fit.”
The local bishop was, perhaps unsurprisingly, alarmed at their sudden change of career. They were summoned for a meeting at the palace.
“We quickly realised this was going to be bigger than we had imagined. That is when we started to negotiate with the bishop, so that he could would let us do it. He appreciated how important it was to us.”
The hierarchy also recognised a good PR opportunity when it saw one.
“It was a difficult time in Ireland and for the Church in general. We were hearing constant bad news stories. It was nice to have a good news story for once — it served its purpose at the time. The bishop might have realised we needed something positive.”
Still, there were fears that The Priests might have heir heads turned by the glamour.
“The bishop might have been concerned about us caught up in the music business world and becoming dissatisfied with our lives as priests. The worry was that we might be lost to the music business. It’s a reasonable fear but there was no need to worry. We are still committed to our ministry.”
With parishes to attend to, keeping The Priests going has not aways been easy, he says.
“We have work commitments and three different diaries to balance,” says Delargyy. “For that reason a lot of what we do musically is organised a long time in advance — so that we can put those dates in the diary and work around them.
“We try to arrange it in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with our other commitments. Sometimes there are clashes — and then you have to turn down opportunities. We always remember where our priorities lie.”
Life as a busy musician is enjoyable — but often intensely tiring, says Delargy.
“At the start it was an adventure and obviously very exciting. We toured America and that was great. However, I remember coming home on a transatlantic flight and having to go Belfast the next morning for a performance. That was gruelling.
“But we’ve enjoyed every moment and wouldn’t change anything. We feel enormously privileged to be able to share our music with so many people. It is something we never take for granted.”