Masses had to be abandoned in Cork and Galway after dozens of parishioners complained of burns, blisters and adverse skin reactions following the distribution of ashes during special Masses to mark the start of Lent.
The ashes, traditionally gathered from the burning of palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, are distributed as a reminder of human mortality.
However, each parish decides how it prepares or acquires the ashes, with some buying them from specialist religious suppliers.
Monsignor Malachy Hallinan, the parish priest of Westside parish in Galway, where dozens of people were affected, said he had never come across this type of incident in his 48 years as a priest.
He stored last year’s palms in his garage and spent the weekend breaking up the branches. He burned the material in his stove and let it rest before adding water on Tuesday night. He said he thought he heard a little fizz but paid no attention.
“At the 10am mass we began to give out the ashes. Then, at about 10.30am, word came back that people were suffering a little burning in the forehead,” he said.
“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].”
Ashes from the bizarre incidents were sent to the HSE’s Public Analyst Lab in Galway for tests.
A spokesman for HSE West said ‘home-prepared’ ashes like these may cause burning because of their caustic nature.
“Ashes can be caustic if the palms used have been burned too intensely,” he said. “This is indicated by the colour of the ash being grey rather than dark or black.”
The lab has now urged parishes to use black ashes for religious ceremonies which should not result in a caustic mixture.
Monsignor Hallinan said the palms he burned were the driest he had ever used.
The burning process removed all the carbon and he said he was told if he had used dirty, wet green palm, there would have been little or no risk of the ash causing injury.
In north Cork, Newtownshandrum parish administrator Fr Eugene Baker had to call a halt to mass in St Joseph’s Church when people started to complain about a burning sensation moments after receiving ashes.
About 30 adults were affected. One woman suffered minor blisters on her forehead. There were reports that another man had to receive hospital treatment.
“I was alerted to the problem at the time of Holy Communion by a member of the congregation,” he said.
“I immediately alerted the congregation to the problem, instructed them to remove the ash with a tissue, and invited them to go to the sacristy to wash the ash off with water.
“At the end of mass, I saw for myself that all who had received ashes had a severe burn. I urged them to get medical attention.
“I deeply regret the discomfort experienced by those who took the ash.”
He contacted the Public Health Laboratory in St Finbarr’s Hospital yesterday asking for guidance and they agreed to take a sample for analysis.
It was delivered yesterday and a HSE spokesman said it could take several days for the analysis to be complete.