The Priests

The Ulster Orchestra provide the music for a series of mainly religious compositions at Clonard Monastery

The line of vehicles snaking back down Clonard Street towards the Falls Road is inching forward slowly, while in the Clonard Monastery car park the queue of concert-goers patiently awaiting admission is already several hundred yards in length, and growing by the minute.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Bruce Springsteen is back in town, but in reality it’s The Priests we’re waiting for. They’re currently somewhere behind the stout entrance portals to Clonard’s decoratively resplendent interior, tweaking last-minute sound balances with the Ulster Orchestra, in preparation for their keynote concert at this year’s Féile an Phobail.

It’s the Féile’s 25th birthday, and curiously The Priests have never previously ‘done a gig’ at the festival, as Father Eugene puts it, grimacing playfully at the daring modernity of the terminology. It’s Eugene’s birthday too, it seems, and he blushes as an impromptu audience rendition of ‘Happy Birthday' is cued by brother Martin, the orchestra gamely improvising an accompaniment.

Inevitably there are introductory speeches celebrating the Féile anniversary. One in particular is listened to with hushed attention. Lord Mayor of Belfast Mairtin O Muilleoir, mobbed by loyalist demonstrators earlier in the day while opening a park in Woodvale, pointedly praises ‘the heroism of the PSNI officers, above and beyond the call of duty’ who extricated him from a decidedly dangerous situation. It’s a sobering moment, and there is prolonged applause afterwards.

Finally, however, it’s time for the music, and David Brophy’s decisive downbeat cues the orchestra in a freshly accented account of the overture to Mozart’s breakthrough opera Idomeneo. Its oddly indeterminate ending – hovering tonally in no-man’s land, shorn of a home-key concert conclusion – is quickly forgotten as the men in black stroll casually from the shallow transept to a modest podium stage-left of the conductor.

Befitting the setting, much of the first part of the evening is devoted to religious compositions, mainly of a soothing, supplicatory nature. Schubert’s 'Ave Maria' and Franck’s 'Panis Angelicus' are typical, highlighting the practiced smoothness with which the silky tenor voices of brothers Eugene and Martin O’Hagan interleave sympathetically with the understated baritone of Father David Delargy.

Yet there’s no sense in which the delivery of The Priests is deliberately manipulated to tug the heartstrings. In Welsh composer Robat Arwyn’s ‘Benedictus’, for example, the keynote is balanced restraint, a trusting in the music to make its own effect without further intervention or manipulation. There's no unnecessary schmaltz here, just sincerely delivered, quality vocalism.

The same is true of 'You Raise Me Up', a number which can veer so far over the top of sugar mountain that it's unretrievable. The Priests play it straight, preferring to concentrate on those eternal verities of good singing, phrasing and diction, and it works excellently.

There is plenty of joking and jocundity as the evening progresses. A Spanish fan is waved around flightily at one point, and there is a droll anecdote about how the trio found themselves billed between The Undertones and Snow Patrol at the 'Sons and Daughters' concert in Derry~Londonderry earlier this year.

There are one or two problems balancing the voice amplification. From the rear of the building the spoken links are difficult to decipher, while the high roof makes it difficult to keep the three voices in individual focus. None of this bothers the capacity audience of 750, however, some of whom eventually resort to the wooden confessionals in the aisles for seating.

A clutch of popular favourites–- 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Send in the Clowns' among them – balances the devotional content, rounding out an evening that sends the crowd home happy. No hype, no hullabaloo, no pandering to lowest common denominators. The Priests are simply consummate professionals – long may they keep singing.

Féile an Phobail continues in venues across west Belfast until August 11.