Tíghe Alluis
Some Spared Stones of Ireland


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sweathouses
part two


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IRISH SWEATHOUSES
AND THE GREAT FORGETTING


Anthony Weir

 


click for a longer view

 

Are Irish sweathouses a continuation of a prehistoric tradition of inhaling consciousness-altering smoke, recently overlaid with the prophylactic function of saunas ?
Cannabis is not likely to have been used in Ireland for a millennium at least, but a much more seriously-numinous means of widening the awareness is still to be found all over the island: Psilocybe semilanceata, or "magic mushrooms"....

 

Killadiskert, county Leitrim


Irish Sweathouses are small, rare, beehive-shaped, corbelled structures of field-stones, rarely more than 2 metres in external height and diameter, with very small "creep" entrances which may have been blocked by clothing, or by temporary doors of peat-turves, or whatever came to hand. Most of those which survive could not have accommodated more than three or four sweaters. They resemble the small 'caves', built into banks, in which many Irish natives were reported to live in the seventeenth century.

Some have chinks to let out the smoke, but they were necessarily cleared of fire and ash before use - so any chinks (deliberate or otherwise) in the rough construction would have served as ventilation ducts in a cramped space. Where these were too big, they were stopped with sods or with mortar.




Cornamore, county Leitrim

They were often covered with sods of earth to counterweight and stabilise the corbelling, and these would also have acted as insulation after firing. That they were fired is certain, for soot remains on the ceilings of some.

Thus they are different from North American sweat-lodges or inipis, which were rarely if ever stone-built, and were heated by carrying hot stones from a nearby fire. Northern European saunas and bath-houses are a modern variant, with an enclosed stove upon or around which stones were placed. Stone retains heat very well.



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Cleighran More, county Leitrim


The first - and only detailed - account of Irish sweathouses came from Latocnaye in the late eighteenth century: a man who spoke no Irish.
[A Frenchman's Walk Through Ireland, translation reprinted by Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1984]. The rural Irishry who used them would not necessarily have told such a man - or any Dubliner, Anglo-Irishman or Englishman in a carriage - what functions the sweathouses served. To this day, the rural Irish of the west (like peasants everywhere) will tell tourists what they think they want to hear, halving distances so as not to discourage the traveller, and enthusiastically recommending the nearest café. Nevertheless, reports of the Sweating Cure have been given in recent times to Brian Williams of the Archæological Survey of Northern Ireland, by people who are unlikely to have heard of it from the archæological literature, or from outside their immediate area.




Ballydonegan, county Derry: beside a stream


A number of early writers on the Turkish bath quote the following from the Reverend Robert Gage of Rathlin Island (between county Antrim and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland), who wrote:-

'Small buildings called sweat-houses are erected, somewhat in the shape of a beehive, constructed with stones and turf, neatly put together; the roof being formed of the same material, with a small hole in the centre. There is also an aperture below, just large enough to admit one person, on hands and knees. When required for use, a large fire is lighted in the middle of the floor, and allowed to burn out, by which time the house has become thoroughly heated; the ashes are then swept away, and the patient goes in, having first taken off his clothes, with the exception of his undergarment, which he hands to a friend outside. The hole in the roof is then covered with a flat stone and the entrance is also closed up with sods, to prevent the admission of air. The patient remains within until he begins to perspire copiously, when (if young and strong) he plunges into the sea, but the aged or weak retire to bed for a few hours.'

[Gage: A History of the Island of Rathlin, 1851]

He also mentions that young women use it for their complexion after burning kelp, and that after about 30 minutes use, their skin is much improved.

There is very little mention of sweathouses on the Web, apart from a summary of conclusions from a rescue-dig at Rathpatrick, county Kilkenny - whose author, knowing little about steam baths, saunas, or simple physics (or indeed about the sparse literature on the subject of Irish sweathouses), is of the opinion that pouring water on hot stones actually increases the temperature. The summary suggests that temporary sweathouses of the North American type (made of bent wands and skins or fabric), with a pool, might well have existed in Ireland during the Bronze Age - around 2,500 BCE. The only problem is that the report suggests that stones were heated in a hearth a couple of metres outside the temporary sweathouse, a labour-intensive operation, since it would be easier and safer to erect the structure over the hot stones in a hearth than to roll very hot (presumably rounded) stones down into what amounts to a tent. The author of the summary suggests, however, that they might have been carried on forked sticks. A correspondent from Rhode Island tells me that he and his friends use a shovel - or preferably a pitchfork - to transport glowing stones into the inipi. and that there are reports of deer-antlers also being used. "The stones are commonly the size of a man's head and never gathered from or near a river - because they explode."


Presumed sweathouse, Rathpatrick - : - Headland Archaeology Ltd.


Whether or not the temporary Rathpatrick structure was a place to sweat in, no stone-built sweathouse standing today is likely to be earlier than the second part of the 19th century, because of the fragility of the structures. If indeed they were built at that time for prophylactic use or to ease rheumatic pain, then (unless they were a curious 19th-century fad introduced by an eccentric) they very likely had an earlier - and more effective - function.

The first thing to note is that the present distribution is in the poorest parts of the ignored counties of Ireland: Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan, as well as northern Sligo - though 'outliers' have been identified in Wicklow, Cork and Kerry.

Coomura, county Kerry (photo by Aidan Harte)


They are often tucked away in rather magical, liminal places, near little streams and/or in little brakes or copses. This differentiates them from lime-kilns (also common in central Leitrim and NW Cavan) which have a similar construction but are much more easily accessible - and have even-smaller "entrances" which only a stoat or a small dog could get through. The inhabitants of this area were until very recently amongst the poorest and most undernourished in Europe. They lived on potatoes and whey, never saw fruit, and after the Famine of the 1840s brought a continuing revulsion against the eating of anything wild and natural (e.g. blackberries and elderberries, let alone sloes, wild damsons, rose-hips, chickweed, nettles, sea scurvy grass, mushrooms etc.) had almost no variety of diet. Healthy pre-Famine infusions gave way to a dependence upon strong imported tea laced with imported, addictive and teeth-rotting sugar: expensive items which allowed little cash for real nourishment in a largely-subsistence society where great labour was required simply to provide fuel for winter.


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Mullan, county Fermanagh


Sweathouses were carefully built, often corbelled, but sometimes slab-roofed, well away from permanent dwelling-houses and often from tracks. They would have had to be tucked away from the eyes of land-agents who might have charged rent on them. But they could have been close to impermanent dwellings, such as bivouacs of tarpaulin or rags and sticks, or "cabins" of wattle and daub such as may have given the town of Cavan its name (like several villages in France called Les Cabannes), rather than the more pleasing derivation of 'hollow' now claimed. It would have taken two or three skilled wall-builders two days to find and select the stones and build one. Some townlands (named units of land of very variable size usually smaller than an English parish) had several sweathouses, and even now three of four townlands have more than one sweathouse, intact or ruined.

The corbel-roofing goes back, of course, to prehistoric times, and is found in Neolithic tombs all over Europe. It involves the laying of stones in an ever-diminishing coil or spiral until it can be finished with a single stone.


Corbel-roofed 'oratory'
on Skellig Michael, county Kerry

[click on the picture to see clocháns on the rock]


Corbel-roof of prehistoric tomb,
Knowth, county Meath



All sorts of corbelled rustic structures can still be seen across Europe, with functions as various as hen-houses, dog-kennels, shepherds' huts and stores.
There are hundreds in the French département of the Lot and adjacent départements of Quercy-Rouergue, where they are known as gariotas when small, and caselas or cabanas when larger.

Corbelled shepherd-hut, Artajona (Navarra), Spain
and a
gariota or casela in Quercy, France.


They all, however, have proper doorways, unlike the diminutive entrances of Irish sweathouses. These required considerable labour to heat. One report says that two donkey-cartsful of turf (which is what peat is called in Ireland) was required to get the stones to a high enough temperature for the sweating - and this is probably correct. In a society where not everyone had rights of turbary (the cutting of peat), and turf was burned in an open hearth, piece by frugal piece, this was quite an extravagance. Turf-digging is labour enough, but the throwing of it up the turf-bank, the stacking in small piles to dry in a wet climate, and its transportation to the dwelling-house still takes a several weeks of the summer, and still many Irishmen working in Britain will come home in the summer to help with the turf. The prodigal use of it to heat up a sweathouse, presumably well away from the dwelling, suggests that sweathouses were in some way very important.


Legeelan, county Cavan


continued on
Sweathouses, part 2

 

 

This page is expanded on the Order the CD ROM developed from this website.

 

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