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 ?
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
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 ?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
on the thumbnail
for a larger picture
[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).]
valuable accounts of sweathouses and people who used them,
In a quasi-erudite essay
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.
the Birmingham (Warwickshire) City Council's website:
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.
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.
IRISH BREWERIES ?
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.
believe that fulachta fiadh - horseshoe shaped,
grass-covered mounds which were conventionally thought
of as ancient cooking spots - could have been the country's
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.
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."
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
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.
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. »