By John Fitzgerald
“The Nation holds it breath.” The famous quote from an RTÉ commentary on Ireland’s penalty shoot-out in Italia 90 came to mind a few weeks ago when a humble priest from Ireland stood before the mighty ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ judging panel. He had just delivered a spine tingling rendition of the REM hit ‘Everybody Hurts’.
The ensuing silence had millions of TV viewers on edge. The judges looked frozen in time and space, as if they’d been turned to stone. Fr Ray Kelly, Parish Priest of Oldcastle, County Meath, pondered his position. Should he leave the stage? He wondered. For a few tension racked moments he resembled more a man awaiting some dire pronouncement than a contestant who had completed his audition. Then worry turned to relief. The reaction to his performance electrified the vast auditorium, had his parishioners wildly celebrating and people across Ireland jumping for joy. The four judges lavished unprecedented praise on the singer.
The story of Fr Ray Kelly and his singing career is already the stuff of legend. Born in 1953 in Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath, his musically talented parents encouraged his God-given aptitude from an early age. Though he loved to sing, any childhood dreams or ambitions became subservient to his religious vocation. As a teenager, he felt called by God to be a priest. But he didn’t stop singing. While studying for the priesthood, he was part of a boy-band called Rafiki. The band entertained at various gigs and concerts and recorded a single to assist local charities.
He was ordained in 1989 and in 2006 took up the position of PP in the parish of St. Brigid′s & St. Mary′s at Oldcastle, County Meath. Singing took a back seat as he served the locals with great dedication and loyalty.
Inevitably, Fr Ray’s golden voice couldn’t go unnoticed. Mass goers found themselves entranced by his choral virtuosity whenever he sang a hymn. Then came the day when, without any intention of attracting attention beyond the confines of his parish, his singing propelled him onto the international stage.
In April 2014, he was officiating at a wedding in St Brigid’s Chapel where he sang a version of Leonard Cohen’s classic song ‘Hallelujah’. The words had been specially adapted for the occasion by the happy couple’s bridesmaid. The congregation was mesmerised by his singing and somebody recorded it. It was uploaded to YouTube later that day and quickly went viral. By the beginning of this year, it had been viewed more than 60 million times.
His life changed completely. He was inundated with messages of goodwill and, in December 2014, he recorded a 10-track album titled ‘Where I Belong’ with Universal Music… all the songs having an Irish or broadly Celtic inspiration.
Ever conscious of his spiritual priorities, Fr Ray saw to it that the album was recorded in his own house and at a suitable time… to avoid clashing with his priestly duties.
In December 2015, he featured as a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek programme, captivating millions of listeners and acquiring a new army of fans.
Undaunted by this unsought for celebrity status, Fr Ray continued in his ministry, never letting fame go to his head. But his gift demanded fulfilment. Even if he opted to neglect it, others… including a devoted congregation in Oldcastle and his legions of admirers worldwide, wouldn’t let his voice fall silent.
So it was that in April this year, he auditioned for the 12th series of the mega popular ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. A long-time fan of the programme, he described it as “a wonderful variety show”. After a lot of soul searching, he decided to go for it.
The song he selected, ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM, was no random choice. He was keenly aware, he said, of the multitude of hurts out there, some borne in silence. As a priest, he had listened to many a heart-breaking tale of suffering, grief and despondency. For Fr Ray, the song encapsulated the need for hope in our lives amidst all the despair.
His rendition of the song wrought tears of joy and sadness, and exhilarated a vast international TV audience. When he finished, there followed that stunned silence that gave way to the first stirrings of applause in the auditorium… that then quickly escalated to a standing ovation from the 4000 attendees.
The judges, Simon Cowell, David Williams, Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden, praised him. Simon Cowell declared it was one of his all time favourite auditions, adding, “When you lifted the song in the second part, it was really glorious.”
Back home in Ireland, he received another round of applause…from his congregation. And he discovered that hundreds of informal BGT house parties had been organised in his native Tyrrellspass to coincide with his performance.
Though he had reached the next stage of the contest, he didn’t make it to the final. But this hasn’t deterred him in the slightest, and there are talks of another record deal in the wake of his two appearances on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.
His uplifting delivery of ‘Go Rest High on that Mountain’ touched the hearts of millions, and the song had a special significance for Fr Ray himself: He chose it in remembrance of his sister, Regina McMahon. She died of oesophageal cancer at the age of 59, leaving behind a husband and a young family.
Fr Ray continues to serve his parish. He’s grateful to all who voted for him in the contest and glad to be back to a familiar routine, including being able to take his beloved dogs, Biddy and Buddy, for walks in the summer sunshine. Wherever he goes, he’s recognised: The price of fame. He says he’ll go on singing as usual, time and commitments permitting. The messages of support are still pouring in – by post, phone, text, email, on social media… all wishing him well in his singing career.
Fr Ray has done Ireland proud. He is a true musical ambassador, and as a priest, he has shown the value of the spiritual life in these materialistic times.