Tighe Alluis
Some Spared Stones of Ireland


go to Gazetteergazetteer

irish prehistoric tombs:





stone circles

(rock art)


stone forts, crannógs & souterrains

ogam-stones &

& cross-slabs

enigmas of the irish crosses

part one

& the phallic continuum

satan in the groin


the earth-mother's

east of brittany:
megaliths of western and southern france


about this CD




Recommended reading:

"Sacred and Profane Substances: the ritual use of narcotics in Later Neolithic Europe"
pages 50-64 of Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford 1981, edited by P. Garwood, D. Jennings and J. Toms (Oxford Committee for Archaeology Monograph no. 32) 1991.]





"My name is Tim. I live in Washington State in the U.S.A.
I am of mostly Irish heritage, but grew up around Native American culture. I practice native spirituality with traditional elders (Lakota mostly).

Outside the peyote cults (a relatively recent arrival on the Northern Plains), and occasional experimenters, there is no drug use in Lakota "sweatlodges". In fact even the Peyote Church doesn't normally use that "medicine" in an inipi (sweat-lodge) ceremony. I am very familiar with Lakota, Blackfoot, Annishnabe, Dineh, Salish, and Cheyenne culture: none of them traditionally used mind-altering drugs with the possible exception of tobacco in their ceremonies. Some individuals played around with them especially in the past 200 years, but they are not a part of traditional spirituality especially in the sweatlodge.

We go into a sweat-lodge for many reasons. The one reason was alluded to in a photo caption in your article where the entrance to the lodge recalled a passage-tomb. We go in the lodge to be reborn, which of course necessitates death.

As a newcomer to these ways and a person who has used drugs to expand my consciousness (with mixed results), it seems to me that drugs do not enhance the experience of an inipi ceremony. Rather they make it difficult to perceive the spirits who are called to that dark and womblike place. Psylocibes and cannibis make it difficult to tell the difference between a personal vision or hallucination, and a manifestation of the presence of a "visitor".

That is the second reason we go into a sweat-lodge: to commune with the spirits of ancestors and non-human benefactors or protectors. And the third and perhaps most important reason is to pray to our creator in thanks - for a good ceremony, for good health and happiness, and for the divine to regard us as grandchildren (and whatever else we want to pray about)...

I liked your article, and the last speculation about 'burnt-mounds' being sweatlodge-remains sounds about right. I'm very interested in what my ancestors may have used the sweatlodge for. I do not doubt that they used psylocybes in them. However, drugs are not necessary for interacting with other worlds and the beings in them. Experiences that we consider unusual or fantastic are not necessarily the product of drug induced hallucinations. I'd go so far as to say that the reason we consider them fantastic and unusual is a product of our delusions and the great "disremembering" you refer to.

As a young man I used drugs to shake up my delusional and narrow perception of the universe. In the absence of elders and genuine spiritual traditions this was a great gift. However, now that I am in the presence of elders and good spiritual ways that are now being rekindled but never were forgotten, my former drug-use still clouds my perception of the spirit world. The farther I get from it the more able I am to see the spirits and receive their teachings..."




my sweathouse album on FlickR


Anthony Weir

Part Two

In line with the Victorian insistence that explanations should be as free as possible from excitement or sin, it has generally been accepted that sweathouses were resorted to as a prophylactic sauna-treatment for aches and pains.

But far more aches and pains would have been incurred in heating a sweathouse than would ever have been alleviated. For a start, the entrance is as little as 75 cms high. To light a turf fire, maintain it and sweep out the ashes, ans strew the floor with bracken or rushes was no easy task. Even if the roof were partly dismantled to put the turf in, this would have been almost as awkward as bringing or throwing it in through the entrance - and the hot ashes would still have had to be swept out.

In a society where everyone had rheumatic pains and arthritis at the very least, and where it was regarded as the normal human condition, it is it really likely that sweathouses several hundred metres from the nearest (stone) house, holding a maximum of 5 people in considerable discomfort and some risk of fainting or even burning, would have been used for the uncertain alleviation of aches and pains ?

click for hi-res photo

click on the picture for a better photo

Tirkane, county Derry, with shallow well in foreground

The better-off rubbed themselves with poitín and patent rubs on sale at markets and fairs; the poorer drank what they could get - poitín, or, in mid-Ulster, ether - to ameliorate bodily discomfort. In any case, sauna treatment is of no avail to such complaints as sciatica, arthritis, and the aching backs still suffered by a high proportion of the more mature population. Arthritic hands and feet would be relieved more easily and effectively by immersion in warm peat-ash from an overnight fire than by squatting uncomfortably in a tiny, dark place.

click to enlarge

Sweathouse doorway seen through a hole in the corbelled roof,
Cuiltia, county Leitrim

So - unless they were a local phenomenon like mid-Ulster ether-drinking - why were sweathouses (never more than 1.75 metres high internally and two metres in internal diameter) built in such numbers ? (It is safe to assume that those which survive represent a tenth or less of the total built just in the county Leitrim.) What could they have been used for ? And when were they introduced ?

Click the photo for more pictures of this sweathouse.

A hole in the corbelled roof photographed from inside the sweathouse at Annacarney in county Wicklow,
far from the main distribution.
(Click the picture for more.)

Mrs McLoughlin of Tullynafreave claimed in 1992 that her maternal great-grandfather built the sweathouse standing some 50 metres from her modern dwelling to save his wife the trouble of travelling to the sweathouse in neighbouring Meenaslieve. She said that her grandmother and perhaps her mother also had used it, and did not think that their spouses had done so. But whether this is an isolated example of late construction (say around 1885) is impossible to determine. Similarly, it is impossible to establish a connection with the coal-mines (in use from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries) that are at the heart of the currently-known distribution of sweathouses - now reported also from south-west Scotland.

Sweathouses are, of course, part of a circumpolar phenomenon which produced the now well-known Finnish sauna. The Turkic tribes who moved from central Siberia and eventually overthrew the Byzantine Empire, seem to have easily adapted to the Byzantine and Roman steam-bath, producing the hammam or Turkish Bath. The North American form was the sweat lodge, used not for mere hygienic reasons, but for spiritual and physical purification, and sometimes as part of the initiation procedures for boys' passage into manhood. We can be sure that the Finnish sauna was not used for merely hygienic reasons before the 19th century obsession with cleanliness as the prime virtue took hold in the Protestant countries of the North.

click for a Larger pictuyre larger photo

Gubnaveagh, county Leitrim

The first Turkish Bath to be established in the British Isles was in county Cork in the 1860s - so there is no likelihood that it inspired simple Irish sweathouses, concentrated much farther north.

The Finnish sauna was an offshoot from a Siberian-Mongolian practice, so it is reasonable to suppose that the Irish sweathouse came from Scandinavia via the Vikings or their successors in the Northern Isles at some time between the 10th and the 15th centuries.

Before their secularisation, saunas were part of the universal combination of religious, medicinal and psycho-therapeutic modes which have only recently, like much else, been split off and compartmentalised by Western science and pseudo-science. Our culture has, as a consequence, taken 'exotic' and exciting elements of other cultures' psycho-social therapies (coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cocaine, cannabis and so on) as mere stimulants and 'highs'. The Turks made the public hammam a part of quasi-religious male confraternity. The Finns have likewise made the communal sauna a kind of men's club. Sweating is one of the many ways of altering consciousness, particularly when it is part (as sometimes in North America) of a series of tests and ordeals - and especially when it is done in the dark. But there is no evidence that the small Irish sweathouses were used in the distinctly religious and reverential way that the large North American sweat-lodges were used - and such a highly-evolved function is most unlikely. Something that few people allow themselves to realise is that many Native Americans were much more emotionally mature than the European invaders, who had (and have) destructive technologies way beyond their wisdom or insight or sensibility.

The medicinal psycho-therapy of Siberia and Mongolia, which is still practised by shamans both male and female, involves mushrooms (Fly Agaric), alcohol, sweating and rapid cooling, fasting, whirling, sleep-deprivation and so on. These produce visions and out-of-body experiences, and are aids to achieving more aware states of consciousness than 'Western values' approve of, whereby the shaman-practitioner can see causes of illness or malaise, and the non-shaman can be suitably awed by the psychic forces released by the unblocking effects of physical ordeal and psychoactive drugs.

Herodotus describes the Scythian practice of altering consciousness through cannabis by throwing the seeds on hot stones inside a tent and inhaling the vapour - the smoking of cannabis and opium is a rather late development. Long before the Scythian incursions, however, cannabis seems to have been inhaled at La Hougue-Bie on the island of Jersey, where 21 pottery vessels marked with burnt resin were found in the untouched chamber recently discovered. Consciousness-improving substances have, of course, been found also in other European sites: the Iron Age site of Wilmersdorf, for example, where remains of cannabis were found in an urn.

Sweathouse with unusually large and grand entrance
recalling a passage-tomb, Annagh Upper, county Leitrim

Closer to Ireland there have been serious suggestions that the "burnt mounds" also known as "ancient cooking-places" or fulachta fíadh, found in huge numbers in Ireland - and also in Britain - might have been used as sweat-lodges in the North American style, or as places for warm-water bathing. These shallow ponds, heated by rolling hot stones into them, could have had many purposes, of course - and warm baths would have been an obvious secondary function.

Could Irish sweathouses be a continuation of a tradition as old as the fulachta fíadh ? They are very flimsy structures, easily subject to total demolition by livestock, and would survive from prehistoric times only through the most extraordinary circumstances - so no evidence is likely to emerge. None has ever been excavated.

Could they be survivals of consciousness-improving chambers as at La Hougue-Bie and Wilmersdorf, latterly 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.

There is a great deal of literature on the effect and use of various kinds of mushroom (Psilocybe spp. and Fly Agaric). The appearance of the formerly ubiquitous "magic mushroom", Psilocybe semilanceata, fits rather well with descriptions of pixies, leprechauns and other 'little green men'. A more gross mushroom-spirit is the modern Santa Claus, dressed in the colours of Fly Agaric, associated with reindeer (from whose urine the unmetabolised but detoxified active constituent was drunk bv the shamans of sub-arctic reindeer-herdsmen, who enters down a chimney and brings gifts. The entrance to many circumpolar dwellings is also the smoke-hole, as in Irish sweathouses. In our culture of acquisition the gifts are meaningless objects of desire rather than real numinous Gifts, and the shaman figure (who degenerated to Father Frost in Westernised Russia and Scandinavia) coalesced with St Nicholas, the Three Magi and the ancient gift-tradition of Saturnalia.

Corradeverrid, county Cavan

If Irish sweathouses were used like the secularised hammam and sauna, why were they not built close to stone-built dwellings and their turf-stacks ? Why were they, as reported, used infrequently - mostly in the Autumn ? Were they used exclusively by one sex ? Does one report of an "itinerant bath-master" indicate a psycho-therapeutic use supervised by a travelling doctor-shaman or Wise Man ? And why, in a country which, until the use of chemical fertlisers, was in October and November (the time of The Gap of the Year, Samhain, Hallowe'en) carpeted with Psilocybe semilanceata, also known as Liberty Caps, is there no record of their use ? These mushrooms are still plentiful on marginal land and on the edges of chemically 'fertilised' agricultural land. But there is a pattern of "collective forgetting" of mind-expanding plants and their extracts by cultures which inevitably adopt mind-numbing drugs such as alcohol. Thus the identity of Soma was lost, and only inactive "substitutes" were identified.

It seems unlikely (though not impossible) that Psilocybe mushrooms were not consumed up to the time of the Famine - but of course the agonising and protracted trauma of the hungry years and the halving of the population by death and emigration affected Irish behaviour and attitudes to Wild Food or "famine food" - as nutritious nettles, rose-hips, elderberries and so on are still considered. After the Famine, only grocery-store victuals were eaten. Even now, eating blackberries is far from universal in Ireland: those who pick them tend to be English, other foreigners, or local children paid (a penny a pound, as I remember in the 1960s) to gather them.

Tullynahaia, county Leitrim

For the decline of Irish traditions right across the spectrum, the Famine was Pelion piled upon the Ossa of Catholic Emancipation of 1829. This resulted in the rapid application to Ireland of a very urban-English Victorian-puritan 'respectability' that ran counter to many of the old ways and practices which had survived until the Penal days - practices which were bowdlerised and Christianised when they could not be suppressed. Ireland became for the first time - and remained until the end of the 20th century - a highly-conservative society which had also lost its traditions, and whose mores came from the right wing of the Catholic church. This is in contrast to Italy, for example, where all sorts of "pagan" survivals (from frog-cults and wolf-veneration to bleeding statues) can still be found in the centre and south, while sceptical atheism is almost the norm in Tuscany and the north.

Annagh Upper (side view), county Leitrim.

So, after the Famine, few would have claimed or admitted to remember the eating of Psilocybe, which, it should be noted, were free, abundant and (through drying) available all year, and produce a state of consciousness far above that induced by alcohol. The world-wide phenomenon of the replacement of natural and fairly benign plants by manufactured, expensive and toxic alcohol is a sad paradigm for the take-over of the world by toxic "turbo-capitalism".

In the same way, 'pagan' practices such as painting or capping phallic stones, using cure-stones (which were promptly and cleverly dubbed curse-stones) some of which still survive, wild dancing (for which the Irish were famous) and the veneration of Fairy Thorns were discouraged.

click the picture for more

Cure-stones, Killinagh, county Cavan

If dark, chthonic sweathouses had a psycho-therapeutic function stretching back at least to Bronze Age times, we can be sure that they too would have been discouraged by the twin powers of Church and State. By the time that uncasual enquiries started (after the First World War) they had fallen into desuetude, and their use had been erased (like much else) from the collective memory.

Small wonder that enquirers were fobbed off with glib explanations of autumnal prophylaxy and 'sweating out the bad' as Mrs McLoughlin of Tullynafreave expressed it. But sweating out the bad might very well have been more than a figure of speech in a desperately poor region in a poor country where every new mouth to fill was a curse, and one too many could reduce a family to destitution and starvation. Mrs McLoughlin stated that only the women in her family had used the sweathouse. If only women used them, it is very possible that they were part of a procedure to induce miscarriage in unwanted pregnancies. Hot baths are a classic part of this procedure, and more effective if followed by cold ones. Ingestion of a large dose of Psilocybe mushrooms is also abortifacient. The water which is near so many sweathouses could also have been most useful for cleansing after a successful miscarriage. And finally, the distance and in some cases difficulty of access would ensure privacy and itself aid the process. The 'Itinerant Bathmaster' could well have been a Wise Man practised in the art of inducing miscarriages. Perhaps he was also a sweathouse-builder - for it would take some skill in building dry-stone walls to construct a sweathouse.

By the dawn of the 20th century very few - if any - people knew how sweathouses had been used, for in Ireland the rupture of handed-down knowledge, especially from mothers to daughters, occurred earlier than anywhere else in rural Europe. To find out the uses and properties of wild plants we have to go to English sources which are still relatively rich - for in England there has been no Great Forgetting beyond that of the universal secret history of the ignored, eschewed, female and oppressed.

Assaroe, county Donegal

How much arcane knowledge died in the hedges with Famine victims, or was carried across the ocean to America and deliberately forgotten there, we will never know. What we can be sure of is that there has been in Ireland a Great Disremembering which acted as undertaker to the Great Hunger, and may still not have run its course. And although sweathouses still lurk in secret places and leprechaun-hatted Psilocybes still grow, their use and possible connection remain as obscure to us as the mind-set of Mesolithic hunter-gathers, the cosmology of Celtic kinglets, or the ecstasy of Atlantic anchorites.

click on the thumbnail for a larger picture


back to part one

[This text has been expanded from articles which previously appeared in
Archæology Ireland (volume 3 number 1, 1989) and The Ley Hunter (number 119, September 1993).]


For valuable accounts of sweathouses and people who used them,
click here


View slide-show


In a quasi-erudite essay on 'Irish Soma', Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey) asks if Psilocybe and Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) grew in Ireland in ancient times. Of course they did - in huge numbers.


from the Birmingham (Warwickshire) City Council's website:

Prehistoric Birmingham- 3000 years old burnt mound

Over 30 "burnt mounds" have been found in Birmingham. These are low mounds, usually 10 to 15m across, composed of heat-shattered stone, charcoal and ash. Some of Birmingham's burnt mounds have been dated to between 1500 and 1000 BC by radiocarbon dating of the charcoal.

Excavation of a burnt mound visible as a layer of burnt stones in a stream bank at Cob Lane in Bournville in 1980 and 1981 showed that it originally lay in a stream meander. Under the burnt mound, there were a burnt hollow, a timber and clay-lined pit next to the former stream bank, and many holes resulting from pointed branches being pressed into the ground. The former stream bed contained remains of beetles. The different beetle species indicate what the environment was like 3000 years ago, and included species usually found where animals are grazing. The silty clay on which the mound had accumulated is likely to be soil which had been loosened by ploughing on the slopes above the site, providing further evidence for prehistoric farming.


The burnt mound mystery - kitchen or sauna?

Burnt mounds are usually interpreted as the débris from when ancient people made water boil to cook food by dropping heated stones into it. Although experiments have shown that this could have been the case, we would expect to find animal bones and other débris from food preparation and cooking.

Another interpretation is that they are the debris from steam or sauna-type bathing. In North American Indian Sweat Lodges, steam is produced for bathing by pouring water over heated stones inside a tent or hut. Reconstructions based on the excavated evidence from the Cob Lane site and the structures used by North American Indians have shown that burnt mounds could well have been saunas. The reconstruction consists of a hearth on which the stones are heated and a tent on a framework of bent-over branches. The heated stones are placed in a hollow inside the tent and water ladled onto them from a clay-lined pit, to produce steam. This reconstruction replicates all the features found in the Cob Lane excavation: the shattered stones and charcoal which is the débris from the hearth, the holes resulting from the pointed branches used to make the tent, the burnt hollow which is where the hot stones are placed, and the clay-lined pit next to the former stream line.

(copied July 2002)

Note that 'Burnt Mounds' in Ireland are known as Fulachta Fía[dh] - and that in the above there is no reference to Irish Sweathouses.


from The Irish Examiner 11th August 2007

by Sarah Stack

« Bronze age Irish men were as fond of their beer as their 21st century counterparts, it was claimed yesterday.
Two Galway archaeologists have put forward a theory that one of the most common ancient monuments around Ireland may have been used for brewing ale.

They believe that fulachta fiadh - horseshoe shaped, grass-covered mounds which were conventionally thought of as ancient cooking spots - could have been the country's earliest breweries.

To prove their belief that an extensive brewing tradition existed in Ireland as far back as 2500 BC, Billy Quinn and Declan Moore recreated the process. After just three hours of hard work, and three days of waiting for their brew to ferment, the men enjoyed a pint of the fruits of their labour.
Three hundred litres of water was transformed into a "very palatable" 110 litres of frothy ale.

"It tasted really good," said Mr Quinn.
"We were very surprised. Even a professional brewer we had working with us compared it favourably to his own. It tasted like a traditional ale, but was sweeter because there were no hops in it."

Mr Quinn said it was while nursing a hangover one morning, and discussing the natural predisposition of men to seek means to alter their minds, that he came to the startling conclusion that fulachta fiadha could have been the country's earliest breweries.

The two set out to investigate their theory in a journey which took them across Europe in search of further evidence.
On their return they used an old wooden trough filled with water and added heated stones. After achieving an optimum temperature of 60°C to 70°C they began to add milled barley, and about 45 minutes later simply bailed the final product into fermentation vessels. They added natural wild flavourings and yeast after cooling the vessels in a bath of cold water for several hours.

Tomorrow they plan to start work on a fourth batch they hope will taste as good as their first.
The archaeologists, who reveal their experiment in full in next month's Archaeology Ireland, point out that while their theory is based on circumstantial and experimental evidence, they believe that, although fulachta fiadh were probably multifunctional, a primary use was for brewing beer. »


simply e-mail


my sweathouse album on FlickR
top of page