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Priest's got talent

Father Ray Kelly tells Claire Brine how joy and pain inspired his singing on Britain’s Got Talent

Nobody’s immune from pain – it’s part of life

AFTER making it through to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, Father Ray Kelly from Oldcastle, County Meath, has proved that he has got it in spades. Last week, in the live programmes of the ITV series, Ray’s singing performance was described as ‘glorious’ by judge Simon Cowell, but it was not enough to earn him a place in the final. Ray was sent home – not a winner, but still a happy man with a big smile on his face.

‘Taking part in Britain’s Got Talent has been a hugely positive experience,’ Ray tells me, when he takes a break from his priestly duties to answer my phone call at St Brigid’s and St Mary’s parish office in Oldcastle. ‘I embraced it. I loved it. The people I met were wonderful.’

It was back in April that Ray made a huge impact in his first TV appearance on the Britain’s Got Talent stage, stunning the audience into silence with his tear-jerking rendition of ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM. Simon Cowell declared the moment as one of his ‘favourite ever auditions’. REM tweeted that Ray gave a ‘powerful and poignant’ performance.

‘After I’d finished singing, there was silence for about four seconds – which felt like four hours,’ Ray recalls. ‘In my head, I was saying: “What’s going on?” Normally, whenever I had seen good performers on Britain’s Got Talent, the audience were up on their feet, applauding before the act had even finished. But there was just silence. I wondered if I should walk off the stage quietly, saying: “Bye-bye everybody.” I hoped I’d be forgotten and that ITV wouldn’t bother broadcasting my clip at all!’

But then Simon Cowell got to his feet, leading the audience in rapturous applause. Fellow judge David Walliams commented that it was ‘a beautiful performance’, and Alesha Dixon added that she found it ‘soothing and calming’. Amanda Holden pointed out that the ‘whole congregation’ of the auditorium were behind him.

After his audition, Ray chatted with Simon backstage, who reiterated that he was ‘blown away’ by his performance. I ask Ray why he thinks a song about pain evoked such a powerful response.

‘Nobody’s immune from pain – it’s part of life,’ he explains. ‘And if you want to talk about people’s pain, there’s nobody more in touch with it than us clergymen. We are with people in their difficult times, such as sickness and when people die. I think Alesha summed it up well when she said that everyone can identify with the lyrics. Maybe, for a few seconds, my performance reminded people in the audience of a time when pain touched their lives, whether it happened one or ten years ago.’

 After a positive first audition, Ray sailed through to the next round of the competition. It was then that another story featuring Ray’s voice gained attention. About four years ago, Ray put new lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song ‘Hallelujah’ and sang it to a bride and groom as he conducted their wedding ceremony. A video was uploaded to YouTube, which, Ray says, ‘went down very well’ in the US and across Europe, although ‘for some reason’ not so much in the UK.

‘But recently it has reached 62 million views. Back when I did that wedding, I received hundreds of emails from people, saying that the video showed the Church and priests in a positive light. With that in mind, I began to think about going on Britain’s Got Talent.

‘It was a show I had watched for years, and I love it. I’d always wondered what it would be like to sing in front of Simon. Part of me thought I’d probably be run off the stage very quickly. But then I realised I was at the age where I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it if I auditioned and nothing came of it. As a mature guy with 29 years as a priest behind me, I decided I would just go for it and see it as a positive experience.’

While Ray hopes that his performances on the UK’s biggest TV talent show will lead to other singing opportunities, he plans to remain fully committed to the priesthood.

‘I’m not going to change my life by giving up being a priest,’ he says. ‘I’m always a priest, and I find great joy in the role. But maybe if my singing takes off, it would mean that I give some more time to music.

‘Being a priest is about being for the people, with the people – and singing “Everybody Hurts” for my audition on BGT seems to have brought a bit of light to so many. One woman emailed me to say that she had written a suicide note, but then she saw me singing on YouTube, and the song brought a calmness and peace to her mind. She explained that, though she was going forwards carrying a lot of pain, she was also going to carry some hope. So I see singing as part of my ministry, whatever road it takes me down.’

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