Ash Wednesday: on your head be it


SMALL PRINT:ON THE FIRST DAY of Lent, having ash on one’s forehead used to be common in Ireland. But has Ash Wednesday’s sacramental ritual depleted in popularity or are Catholics still marking themselves out in the act of repentance before God?

In recent times the most visible recipients of ash have been politicians in the chamber or schoolchildren competing for the biggest mark on their forehead. But according to Fr John McGovern of Ennis parish in Co Clare, the practice is growing in popularity again.

“People seem to be doing it more so than they used to. It seems to me that a lot of these sort of practices, the sort of one-off events get a lot more popular.” McGovern says that a few weeks ago they had the blessing of the throats, a ritual that takes place on the feast day of St Blaise (February 3rd) involving blessing those in attendance with candles.

The practice had all but died out in many areas, but McGovern says this month people “were coming out of the woodwork” looking to receive the blessing. “For Ash Wednesday, we find the churches are filled on that day,” Fr McGovern says.

“People would be phoning the office looking for ash. There’s something about the ritual of it that seems to touch people in that way.”

Ordinarily on a weekday mass at St Joseph’s church there would be around 50 in attendance, he says, but that swells to around 250 on Ash Wednesday, not including people who come to the church to receive ash who wouldn’t have time to stay for an entire mass.

“The ritual has remained the same, as a sign of repentance that goes back to the Old Testament,” McGovern says. “It touches people on some level which is hard to explain; that’s the job of someone doing a PhD thesis to explain that.”

In addition, priests visit hospitals and schools in the area to administer ash. “There would be a great demand for it,” McGovern says, “with parents ringing up or patients and their families enquiring about it.”