Clonmany parishioners receive their ashes in takeaway style

Blessed ashes are packed into plastic sauce pots and left at churches for collection

Fr Brian Brady with the last container of ashes in St Mary’s Church in Clonmany, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Fr Brian Brady with the last container of ashes in St Mary’s Church in Clonmany, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

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Even with churches closed due to Covid-19, parishioners in Clonmany, Co Donegal, will still receive their ashes on Wednesday thanks to the “takeaway” service provided by the parish priest and the local shop.

The self-service ashes – supplied in plastic sauce pots from the village’s Centra – and a brief prayer service have been available to take home from the parish’s three churches this week.

“It certainly seems to have met a need that the parishioners had,” says parish priest Fr Brian Brady. “I’m also delighted to be able to maintain a tradition that has been part of our church for 1,500 years.

Coronavirus makes all of these things very difficult, but it would have been sad if it had been missed.”

The idea came from the owner of the village’s Centra shop, Joe Joyce. “I would have been talking to customers, particularly the seniors, and they were talking about how this Ash Wednesday would be the first time in their lives they didn’t have ashes, and that resonated with me.”

An initial batch of ashes was blessed by Fr Brady and then packaged into 200 pots by Joyce and his staff and left at the churches – St Mary’s, Clonmany, St Michael’s, Urris, and the Oratory of the Assumption in Ballyliffin – for parishioners to collect; they proved so popular that a second batch ran out by Tuesday afternoon.

The pandemic, says Fr Brady, has been “a difficult time for everybody... and sore on the psyche”. He describes the First Communions and baptisms missed, and how the community has been unable to grieve properly for its loved ones. “I think the second lockdown has been a lot harder than the first, with the bad weather and the short days.”

He has been “surprised” that so many people have come to collect the ashes. “It seems to have touched something in the Catholic psyche,” he says, adding that prayer has become more important during lockdown.

People “do feel the need of some sort of a helping hand, do feel the need [to know] that there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and that it’s important to be given opportunities to turn to the Lord and acknowledge that we can’t manage this totally on our own”.

Community spirit

Particularly encouraging, says Fr Brady, is the number of people who have come to collect ashes for neighbours. “It has helped people to know that we’re in this together and we need each other and the way forward is to be good neighbours and to help each other so that we’ll all come through it as a community.”

That community spirit has been to the forefront during the pandemic, Joyce explains, thanks to the Clonmany Together group. Formed as a way of providing practical aid in the early days by delivering food parcels, it has since developed into a wider support network for local people; takeaway ashes, says Joyce, were just another “simple thing to do” to help.

Now, Joyce’s customers are no longer worried; instead, they speak of the “massive relief” at being able to administer the ashes at home, and describe how “sons and daughters [have been] dispatched” to collect these ashes for them.

“In rural Ireland and in Clonmany, tradition and the old values are still there, and that sense of community and that sense of belonging is still there, and it means so much to people that we were able to provide this for them,” says Joyce.

Fr Brady agrees. There is, he says, a sense of hope in the village. “It’s palpable. There’s a sort of sprightliness in people now, the vaccination has been important and it’s rolling out now and I think people are sort of feeling we’re beginning to get a handle on this virus.

“The helplessness was very difficult to cope with... now you can see the sunshine, we’ve had a lovely day here the last two days, and it’s done something to the human heart, it really has lifted the spirits.”