Hallelujah for the priest whose song went viral

Fr Ray Kelly tells Ed Power how he became a YouTube sensation after doing a version of Leonard Cohen’s famous song at a wedding.
Hallelujah for the priest whose song went viral

IN 2014, Leonard Cohen received an unusual recording of his great anthem, Hallelujah.

The song is among the most covered in popular music — but this version was different.

The lyrics had been tinkered with and Cohen may have been surprised to discover the singer was a Catholic priest.

As an ordained buddhist monk, it is tempting to imagine him feeling a connection.

What we do know is that he found the rendition of sufficiently high standard to receive his imprimatur.

“I was slightly worried whether he would give it the thumbs up. I hadn’t used the original words to the song,” says Father Ray Kelly of Cohen’s secular hymnal (which, in its original form, argues spiritual transcendence is possible without belief in a higher power).

“Using the original words is just not something I would do. It was a big question whether he would approve my version of the song. I’ll never forgot getting the call from one of my producers — ‘Leonard Cohen has agreed’. Whether he smiled or laughed as he listened I don’t know. But I got the nod. It’s something that will always link me to him.”

By then Father Kelly’s Hallelujah was already a enormous viral hit.

He had regularly performed the ballad at weddings, where he inserted references to the couple about to tie the knot (his recorded version contains most of these lyrical alterations).

One such recital, at his church in Oldcastle, Co Meath, was captured on home video and posted to YouTube in April 2014.

Within a week it achieved nine million hits and Kelly found himself crooning on the Late Late Show.

Today the version has received 53 million views (Kelly, who did not upload the video, has not made a cent from YouTube views).

“The wedding was on Saturday evening and I didn’t notice any response,” recalls 63 year old, who plays Cork Opera House tonight.

“On the Tuesday, the couple emailed me to say they were heading to Mexico on their honeymoon and added that the song was on YouTube.

“I wouldn’t have been a big computer fan but I got my niece’s husband to show it to me. About three times while we were watching the phone rang – it was people telling me I was on Facebook and YouTube. By Wednesday morning I was talking to Ryan Tubridy on the phone and on Friday it was the Late Late.”

Did he have a sense the performance was about to change his life?

“I’ve been singing long enough that I was always careful to put feelings and emotions into the songs. I knew something was happening because you could hear mumbles through the congregation. Then I saw the bride had tears in her eyes.”

Oddly, he was never an especially huge Leonard Cohen fan.

“It was big on the X Factor for a few years — a lot of artists were covering it. That’s really how I became aware. I remember Alexandra Burke did it and then JLS. I downloaded the JLS backing track and would do it at mass.”

Father Kelly entered the priesthood at the relatively advanced age of 27. From Tyrrellspass, Co Westmeath, he had previously worked as a public servant.

Music was always important but, apart from collaborating with some friends at seminary (he jokingly described the group as Ireland’s original boyband), he had never actively pursued the spotlight.

“As a young lad you could sing. It was something I would have loved to be able to do. I got diverted and suddenly it didn’t seem to be realistic. I became priest, went to South Africa for a while. For all this to happen to me was such a surprise. Obviously I never saw it coming.”

The past two years have been a whirlwind he reports. Kelly has sung on Fox TV and at the St Patrick’s Parade in New York. In a way, his training as a priest helped him cope.

“Going into a concert hall is not entirely unlike mass,” he says. “Obviously there are differences. However, I am used to going in front of a crowd. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Hallelujah – An Evening with Fr Ray Kelly is at Cork Opera House tonight

More in this section