On April 5, 2014, Father Ray Kelly, the parish preist in the sleepy Irish town of Oldcastle, County Meath, performed a routine wedding ceremony for Chris and Leah, a couple from Dublin and Northern Ireland. As he often does for weddings, he sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, shoehorning Leah and Chris’ names into the lyrics.
It was run-of-the-mill for any of Oldcastle’s locals, who have heard Kelly’s singing every week for the eight years he’s been the town’s priest.
To Chris and Leah it was special, though. They put the performance on YouTube. The rest of the world, turns out, thought it was pretty special too.
Not quite a year later the video has over 41 million views.
Kelly has become something of a tourist attraction for his scenic town, and while he gets invitations to perform weddings and concerts all over the world, has traveled very little, loyal as he is to his parish.
So what exactly is it like to be a small-town priest who goes viral? To instantly become a tourist attraction? To have the world open up to you knowing your loyalties will always lie within your community? Read on.
Q: So Father Ray Kelly, what happened the day the video was made?
A: Last year I was performing a wedding ceremony for a couple that is not from Oldcastle. At the wedding rehearsal two days before I told them I may sing a song for them myself. They just kind of laughed and smirked and went “oh yeah sure.”
The day of the wedding came and I had my backing track set up. I started singing Hallelujah and everybody was looking around to see where the sound was coming from. When they realized it was the parish priest, there was this big standing ovation and tears from the bride and tears from the bridesmaids. It all got very emotional.
I thought that was the end of it.
That was a Saturday. On Tuesday I got an email from Chris and Leah thanking me for the mass and particularly for the surprise they got with “Hallelujah”—and by the way it’s up on YouTube.
They sent me the link and I thought “Oh yeah. YouTube. Haven’t been on YouTube too often.” I hit the link and there I was singing away. Within an hour or two phone calls were coming in “Father Ray you’re on Facebook! You’re on Twitter! You’re at a thousand hits! You’re at two thousand hits! You’re at five thousand hits!”
It’s now got almost 41 million hits.
So for you it wasn’t really anything unusual?
I’ve sung that at weddings before! I’ve done it so often.
Do people come to Oldcastle just to see you?
Yes, particularly last summer. People in America, in your own country there, they emailed and called me to let me know they were visiting. Some had been to Ireland before, but now they had a new tourist attraction.
They may land in Dublin at 9:30 in the morning and their first port of call is Oldcastle for the 11:30 mass.
How has this last year changed for you?
Well, I suppose I’m not just Ray Kelly, the parish priest of Oldcastle anymore. I’m Ray Kelly, the parish priest all over the world.
Do you have more people who want to get married at your church?
Absolutely. Initially I was invited to weddings all over the world—France, Japan, China, South Africa, you name it. As a parish priest, of course, I couldn’t take up those offers, but, well, my wedding calendar in Oldcastle is booked pretty well for 2016.
Where have you gone with your new-found fame?
Well I haven’t traveled at all. I don’t have time to travel. I couldn’t possibly because of the parish. I’m the only priest here. I have no problem with it, though, if they want to celebrate their wedding here in the parish. I’m always around.
I feel like your town is going to become a wedding destination.
Maybe! I don’t know. If it does bring people to this small rural town in Ireland, great. It’s great for the locality, it’s great for the people, and it’s great for the businesses. It’s a very picturesque little village town here anyway.
Did you ever have any dreams of being a musician?
I suppose, as a kid. It’s always a dream when you’re in your 20s, to be a pop singer. I did a little of it. I went into some talent competitions and things. Then priesthood came into my head and took over everything, so music was put on the side for a while. I guess it all bubbles up inside you again.
Now you get to do both.
At one time, going back many years ago, it was seen that if you’re a priest you stick to your priestly role. Now it’s believed that if you have gifts and talents, you use them. It’s kind of praising God in itself, praising by using the gifts. I am a priest and I love being a priest and I’ll always be a priest. It’s about bringing the two together, really.
The video, below:
Amy Schellenbaum is the Digital Editor of Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @acsbaum.