Irish churches give out 'takeaway' ash to mark Lent under lockdown

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With Ireland in the midst of coronavirus restrictions, churches marked Ash Wednesday by handing out packets of "takeaway" cinders for worshippers to perform the Christian ritual at home.

"We cannot use the traditional way of imposing ashes on people's foreheads, because the risk of the damp ashes containing infective material is too high," Father Padraig O'Sullivan told AFP.

"Instead we have put the ashes in little sachets and we distribute the sachets out to individual households."

Under his watch the Church of the Immaculate Conception, on the outskirts of Dublin, has prepared 500 packets of ash for the day.

Ireland is currently in its third coronavirus lockdown, with non-essential shops, pubs, restaurants and most schools shut, after surging infection rates at the start of January.

Nearly 4,000 people have so far died from the virus.

However, worshippers are allowed to trickle through the Catholic church for private prayer and collect ashes from the alter -- where Father O'Sullivan has blessed them.

Once home, the ashes can be used in private ceremonies after being mixed with water -- in a process not dissimilar to preparing dehydrated soup powder or instant noodles.

"It's very unusual but it has to be done, because it's part of who I am," said worshipper Susanne Glennon, after marking her forehead with a cross in the car park.

Elsewhere, there are more signs the institution has had to adapt to the pandemic.

In some churches, social distancing signage is spread across pews and a sign in one next to the votive candles warns: "Warning! Hand sanitiser is highly flammable! Please be careful!"

In the village of Clonmany in County Donegal, on Ireland's north-western tip, ashes were prepared in takeaway containers usually used to distribute ketchup sauce.

Shop owner Joe Joyce delivered 600 pots to father Brian Brady of St Mary's Church, where they were blessed and left for collection at three local chapels.

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent -- the 40 days preceeding Easter when Christ fasted in the desert.

Ashes are traditionally made by burning palm leaves and marked on the forehead to remind believers of the Bible passage: "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."