The Priests used music during the Irish Troubles as a unifying force

  • December 8, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - When Fr. Eugene O’Hagen was a student at St. MacNissi’s College in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, one of his school friends used to dress up in an IRA uniform for parties and sing The Men Behind the Wire.

“It was his party piece,” O’Hagen explained on a recent visit to Toronto to promote The Priests’ latest CD, Harmony. The song begins:

“Armoured cars and tanks and guns

Came to take away our sons

But every man must stand behind

The men behind the wire.”

The song is pure propaganda. It fed on and into the siege mentality of Northern Ireland in the 1970s — when British soldiers roamed the streets, the IRA was amassing weapons and the Royal Ulster Constabulary was in cahoots with paramilitary gangs.

Back then — when O’Hagen, his brother Martin and their good friend Fr. David Delargy were growing up — music was a weapon.

“Music can be used as a means of spreading propaganda,” said Delargy.

The Priests grew up surrounded by just that sort of propaganda, and the division it fostered in Northern Ireland. But somehow it never took.

The three young men who grew up to be ordained, study in Rome and employ music in their ministries saw a completely different potential in music.

“In fact, music brings people together,” said Eugene. “It brought us into contact with people from a whole variety of persuasions.”

While their music might seem a tad sentimental, and the lush orchestrations might overplay things a bit, The Priests think of their concerts and recordings as occasions to bring people together. One of Eugene’s favourite memories from the mad 17 months since they signed a $1 million-contract with Sony Music was the concert they gave at at the Odyssey Arena, home of the Elite Ice Hockey League’s Giants (mostly Canadians) in Belfast.

“Everyone was there, Protestants and Catholics,” a grinning Eugene O’Hagen told a capacity audience at St. Paul’s Basilica Dec. 4.

It’s the power of music to bring people together that keeps the priests smiling.

The Priests will never sing a song about armoured cars and tanks and guns. They end every concert with their own a cappella arrangement of “An Irish Blessing.” In it’s entirety it says:

“May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

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