'IT'S BEEN BIZARRE AND FANTASTIC'

WHEN Father Eugene O'Hagan signed a contract to record classical music with two fellow priests, he might have expected a passing mention on Northern Ireland television news programmes and perhaps a photograph or two in the local press.

But eight months on, the likeable 48-year-old has been propelled from the relative seclusion of his small parish in Ballyclare to international stardom on a scale that most pop stars only dream of.

As administrator in the Ballyclare and Ballygown parish, Father Eugene is a familiar and much-loved figure among the worshippers at Sacred Heart Church.

However, until this year his beautiful tenor voice hadn't been heard much beyond the Doagh Road chapel, except for a few concert halls and music theatre stages across the Province.

The decision by Sony BMG - Simon Cowell's famous recording company - to sign up Eugene, his younger brother Martin and their old schoolfriend, David Delargy, in a much-publicised 1m deal changed all that.

After recording a CD, simply titled "The Priests," during the summer, the trio were launched on a whirlwind of promotional appearances involving a hectic travelling schedule across the globe.

The result has been phenomenal. Not only have The Priests soared to No. 1 in the UK classical and Irish charts, they have the distinction of being the the fastest selling ever debut classical performers in the UK.

Their CD sales are outstripping many high profile pop stars - and they have hit top chart positions in Norway, Sweden and New Zealand.

Back home in Ballyclare for Christmas, Father Eugene admits that since the launch of the CD on RTE's "Late Late Show" on November 14, life has changed dramatically for the trio.

"At times it has been nothing short of bizarre, bewildering .... and, of course, fantastic," he reflects.

One of The Priests' final television appearances before returning to their parishes last week was on GMTV, when their live performance of "Panis Angelicus" reduced presenter Fiona Phillips to tears.

"After we had sung, we were presented with a Platinum Disc for the CD. That was a big surprise - my jaw hit the floor," says Father Eugene.

"Generally, the success has exceeded all our expectations. The CD is doing very well in Europe and has gone Platinum four times over in Ireland. It has also gone Gold in Canada."

Even though there has been no big promotional push in America so far, The Priests are already gaining popularity following the screening of a concert recorded in Armagh to launch the CD.

"Things take a bit longer in America, because it is the equivalent of 52 countries, but everybody seems very happy with the take-up so far," adds the Ballyclare priest.

So what is the reason for the astonishing and rapid success of this clerical trio?

"I think it is a combination of many things," reflects Father Eugene. "Although the listening public are used to music like Gregorian Chant, there hasn't before been a group of clergymen who have made music of this quality before.

"It is who we are, too - we are a very different kind of 'band' - and there is a good mixture of music, so I think there has been a happy fusion of lots of things."

With important commitments back in their parishes, Father Eugene and his colleagues had insisted that their churches should not suffer as a result of their recording careers.

"When it came to promoting the CD, everything was highly organised, which was great. We knew what days it would involve, so we could prepare in advance," he explains.

"Although it was very enjoyable, we found it physically tiring and challenging. At one stage, within the space of four days, we travelled to Toronto, Washington, New York and Montreal. It was so quick, we didn't see anything of those cities at all."

The promotional tour also gave The Priests an opportunity to rub shoulders with a number of household names, including chart-toppers "Take That" ,Welsh star Tom Jones, "This Morning" presenter Phillip Schofield and celebrity couple, Peter Andre and Katie Price.

"We have met some lovely people, not just the famous names but people working behind the scenes too," says Father Eugene.

"Through it all, there was always the feeling of being tired and exhilarated at the same time."

At home, the trio's nearest and dearest have been following The Priests' success with an increasing sense of pride.

"Our families have been great," says Father Eugene. "Everybody around us has been encouraging and quietly proud."

The people of Ballyclare, too, have been following their local cleric's rise to stardom with fascination.

"We are a small community and a lot of townspeople from across the community have been very kind," he says. "When I was out with other clergymen for the Black Santa appeal and even shopping in ASDA, people were coming up to me and giving me great encouragement.

"I think, as a community it has brought us closer together and has helped to bring down old barriers."

In fact, the people "back home" haven't been forgotten in the long list of thanks on The Priests' CD. Among those given a special mention by the trio are Ballyclare Male Choir, the Abbey Singers and Fortwilliam Musical Society, with whom Father Eugene has performed.

As he prepares for a very busy Christmas period, during which the people of the parish will have an opportunity to hear their famous priest singing at a carol concert in Sacred Heart, Father Eugene admits that in many ways it is a relief to return to normality.

"The ordinary things go on and it is nice to get back to stability," he says.

"I am really looking forward to Christmas in the parish. Particularly during this economic downturn, it will be good to give ourselves a bit of a lift."

Although the bulk of The Priests' promotional work has been completed, the New Year will bring a trip to France for the singing clerics.

A February concert in St. Peter's Cathedral, Belfast, is being planned in aid of Trocaire - and there will be a further performance in Dublin during March.

Such has been the success of The Priests' debut album that a follow-up seems highly likely.

"Yes, there have been preliminary thoughts on a second album, but there's nothing definite, so we'll just have to wait and see," says Father Eugene.