Galway priest solves mystery after ashes burn foreheads

Parishioners at several churches reported adverse reaction to Ash Wednesday blessing

The ashes used to mark people’s foreheads are the burned remains of palm fronds blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

The ashes used to mark people’s foreheads are the burned remains of palm fronds blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA


An elderly Galway priest has solved the mystery of the sacred ashes that burned the forehead of parishioners in a number of churches across the State on Ash Wednesday.

Monsignor Malachy Hallinan, parish priest of Westside parish in Galway city, was one of a number of priests who were shocked when members of their church community reported the adverse reaction after receiving the ashes on Wednesday morning.

Blessed ashes that burned the foreheads of some 30 parishioners in Co Cork are to be sent for analysis to a public health laboratory.

Fr Eugene Baker administered the ashes as part of a ceremony marking the beginning of Lent at St Joseph’s Church in Newtownshandrum in north Cork yesterday. The ashes, which caused a burning sensation on the skin of those who received the blessing, are to be analysed to determine what caused the reaction.

In Galway, Monsignor Hallinan said he had never experienced such a reaction in his 48 years as a priest. He had stored the palm from Palm Sunday last year in his garage and spent the weekend breaking it up.

He then burned it in his stove and let it rest before putting water through it on Tuesday night. He thought he heard a little fizz but paid no attention to it.

“At the 10am mass we began to give out the ashes, three of us. Then, at about half past ten word came back that people were suffering a little burning in the forehead.

“About 10 minutes later a man came and the skin had broken, so I immediately took all the ashes in from the church and didn’t go to the school (with them)”.

His secretary contacted the public analyst in Galway, Dr Andrew Flanagan, and supplied a sample of the ashes for analysis.

“When I met him he asked me if it was it dry and seasoned. I said it was perfectly dry — the driest I ever had. He said ‘that’s your misfortune’. He said that once you burned it, you took away all the carbon from it — you could say it was almost over-cooked.

“Then when I applied the water it became caustic. I didn’t know that. He rang back at 12.30 to confirm it and later delivered the results to my house for fear I might have evening Mass.

“He told me that if I had dirty wet green palm, there would be less danger -- no danger at all.

“People immediately were ringing in and once I told them what happened, that was it. But I am concerned about the people,” Monsignor Hallinan said.

He went on local radio yesterday to warn people of the danger associated with the ashes and stressed that it contained no chemicals.

“If people have burns or skin broken, let them contact the doctor immediately or get some medical advice and care.

“The public analyst said it had happened in one other place in Galway, but it hadn’t been publicised and he said it was time to get the word out to the priests and to the parishes in regard to this matter - it’s too serious a matter to leave.”

In Cork , Health Service Executive laboratory technicians at St Finbarr’s Hospital were expecting to receive the ashes from at Newtownshandrum in order to carry out tests after some 30 parishioners had their foreheads burned.

“It was an extraordinary event,” spokesman for the Diocese of Cloyne Fr Jim Killeen said. “I’ve never heard of this happening before.

“The ashes in question are to be sent off now for laboratory analysis so we can only wait and see what was the cause,” he said.

It’s thought the presence of chlorine in holy water added to the ashes may have caused the ‘extraordinary’ burning sensation.

“Generally holy water is ordinary tap water that is blessed. But there would not be a huge amount added to make the ashes,” Fr Killeen said.

Fr Baker said he was shocked by the incident and immediately ceased distributing the ashes as parishioners began to complain of a burning sensation on their skin. He apologised to Mass -goers and instructed them to wash the ashes off in the sacristy.

“It was about 30 people - they had all received the ashes before any alarm was raised. Some minutes afterwards, someone said it.”

The ashes are the burned remains of palm fronds blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.

Prayers are said over the ashes as a blessing and holy water can be added to moisten them before distribution.