Epic journey for Meath’s ‘singing priest’

Fr Ray Kelly still can’t believe he became an internet sensation, writes Louise McCarthy

Fr Ray Kelly’s dream of becoming a professional singer is now a reality, thanks to the popularity of an internet video featuiring the Co. Meath cleric singing at a wedding. The singing sensation has a record deal with Universal Music Ireland and his Christmas album, Where I Belong, was launched on the Late Late Show in time for Christmas.

Singing Leonard Cohen’s iconic Hallelujah last April, for newlyweds Leah and Chris O’Kane, transformed Fr Kelly’s life. Fr Kelly, almost 62-years-old, performing as the ‘singing priest’ at weddings for decades, now has 38.5million hits on YouTube.

Since then Fr Kelly has been a guest on the hit US television show Ellen hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and has appeared on the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy twice.

His debut performance at the Olympia Theatre will take place on February 19 and Fr Kelly will star in a four-hour television show in Germany this January, a country that he has taken by storm.

A tour of the United States is planned for 2015.Before signing with Universal, he had spent almost two months in talks with record chiefs, including representatives from Sony and a smaller independent company.

“I did not expect this, I have been singing for many years, it was part of who I am,” Fr Kelly told The Irish Catholic.

Virtual studio

When Fr Kelly became parish priest of Oldcastle, Co. Meath, he converted one of the rooms into a virtual studio so that he could continue to sing. Often asked to sing at local events and weddings, he did not expect his meteoric rise to fame.

Although Fr Kelly secured a major record deal, he made it clear that he was not prepared to give up his responsibilities as parish priest. The producers built a recording booth in Fr Kelly’s house to facilitate recording the album.

“It has been fairly hectic, there is a lot associated with recording an album,” he said. However, his commitment is clear admitting that in the run up to Christmas he has had to cut back on appointments to concentrate on pastoral work.

Despite the overwhelming outpouring of goodwill, there have been some naysayers.

“All age groups are coming to my concerts, people are telling me that it is good for the Catholic Church, but some people have said that it is not good for the Catholic Church, such as criticising clapping in Church.

“I would see clapping as a form of celebration,” said Fr Kelly.

Originally from Tyrellspass, Co. Westmeath, Fr Kelly grew up surrounded by music. Raised by musical parents, he learned how to play the piano and guitar, but was only truly happy with a microphone in his hands.

He admits to be “enjoying every bit” of the fame the YouTube hit has brought him.

“The Lord is giving me good health. The concerts were great, I was nervous, but they were a sell-out. Singing in Navan was like going home,” he said.

Moving from Tyrellspass to Dublin, Fr Kelly worked in the civil service for 10 years at the Department of Defence, where he inspected army barracks’.

In Dublin, Fr Kelly did not give up his passion for singing. He continued to enter talent competitions. It was whilst working in the civil service that he began to hear and respond to the call to the priesthood.

“I said I would go to daily Mass for Lent, l would have gone every Sunday, anyway, but I started to go every day. It was only an extra 30 minutes before work. I started to think what would it be like to work as a priest, as I saw the priest speaking from the altar,” said Fr Kelly.

The ‘tug of war’ of thoughts about entering the priesthood stayed with Fr Kelly for some time. However, a turning point in his vocation journey came following a trip to Rome in 1980 where he met Pope St John Paul II. He joined 1,000 young people to celebrate Mass with the Pope to commemorate the 1979 papal visit to Ireland. Later that week at an event, he sang Danny Boy and, afterwards, the Pope presented him with a rosary. Two years later, Fr Kelly entered St Patrick’s College, Maynooth to begin priestly formation.

“I was 27 or 28. I had a girlfriend, I lived in Dublin, in my own home. I had a pensionable job, I was set up for life… but I had a calling, I had ignored it for long enough. I had to do something about it,” said Fr Kelly.

He was initially attracted to the life of a missionary and worked with the Kiltegan Fathers in pre-apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s. He experienced the jubilation when Nelson Mandela was released from Robin Island on February 11, 1990.

Describing it as an “exciting time”, his stay in South Africa was short-lived. He got a call from home in Tyrellspass, two weeks before Christmas, informing him that his father was sick. His father had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and Fr Kelly spent three months with his father before his death.

“I was a newly-ordained priest for my father’s funeral, it was a hard thing to do,” Fr Kelly recalls.

He returned to South Africa, but was only there a short time when he was informed that his mother had suffered a heart attack. He returned again to Tyrellspass and made one trip back to South Africa for 18 months, but could not settle.

Fr Kelly went on to do Mission Appeal work in the US but always had Ireland in his heart. He longed for some stability.

He became parish priest in Navan for nine years and has served in Oldcastle since 2006.

Surrounded by family still living in close proximity, Fr Kelly has about 15 nephews and nieces, and 25 grandnieces and nephews, who are all very excited about their “uncle’s new found fame”.

He is very excited about his new album, launched earlier this month, featuring a new wedding song especially written by Mark Copley.