Irish Sweat Houses

2001 - 2011

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Tucked away in the back of many fields and in out of the way places in Ireland are small overgrown huts that look like miniature tombs. They are constructed of stone with small entrances and covered with sods, they are, in fact, sweat houses. It may come as a surprise to many that Ireland has its own tradition of the ‘sweat lodge', mostly we associate this with the Native American culture and, for some time, American style sweat lodges have been conducted here also. These are mostly based on the Inipi ceremony of the North American Plains Indians and a sweat is undertaken usually for initiation, purification or in preparation for the vision quest. Were our own sweat houses used for similar purposes?

Firstly, it must be stated that little information has survived to tell us what exactly they were used for. Although sweat houses seem to have been constructed up to the end of the nineteenth century(1) the knowledge of their use has been forgotten through lack of interest, embarrassment or as a result of the destruction and mass emigration of the famine. It has been pointed out that, in post-famine Ireland, there seems to have been a kind of aversion to old ways and natural things that has resulted in the outwardly respectable and ultra-conservative attitude that can be found in many parts of the country today. An example of this was the idea of "famine food", which was the eating of any kind of wild food, i.e. blackberries, implying that one had to be hard up to eat it.

As for the sweat houses many nineteenth century antiquarians variously reported that it was used as a ‘sweating cure' for many different ailments - and this seems to be true up to a point. However, as in many societies when faced with foreign anthropologists, the temptation to lead them up the garden path is enormous. It has also been pointed out that the investment in turf required to heat one of the sweat houses would have been in the order of two and a half donkey loads. This would have been an extravagant expense simply to get rid of the few aches and pains that most of the population suffered from anyway. In order to be more worthwhile, the use of these structures must have been important indeed.

The sweat houses are distributed over a number of counties, primarily Leitrim, Louth, Cavan, Fermanagh and parts of Sligo. These were all poor counties so it is doubly interesting given the economic investment in the use of the sweat house. Sweat houses are also sited away from dwellings and are often close to streams. They can be quite hard to find as I can attest to having looked for examples on the Cooley Peninsula. The houses are usually about 1.75m high and 2m in diameter with a small entrance and often a small smoke hole which could be covered with a flat slab. The method of heating was described as building a fire in the house and allowing it to completely burn out, the ashes were then raked out and rushes or other plants strewn on the floor. A stone was placed over the smoke hole and the patient entered naked. The door was blocked and the patient sweated profusely, the plants on the floor giving off moisture to give an effect similar to a sauna. Soot has been found inside the sweat houses showing that a fire was built in them, however, John Matthews assures me that he has come across references to the use of hot rocks heated outside the sweat house and then placed inside - much the Native American methods. After the sweat, the patient would emerge and go for a swim in the river as in modern Scandinavian saunas. If old or infirm they would go to bed for a few hours(2). It has also been recorded that mixed groups of men and women used sweat houses, again entering naked.

So why go to the trouble simply as a cure for aches and pains (which is the accepted explanation)? Clearly there may have been other uses for the sweat house, as has been mentioned earlier, the fuel needed to heat one was sufficient to suggest a community involvement. The energy needed to cut, stack and dry turf is considerable and such an intensive use would exhaust a family's supply quite quickly. Obviously, I am presupposing a ritual function which is evident in a lot of the traditional sweating practices of the circumpolar cultures (of which Ireland is one). However, the sweat house tradition may not reach back to pre-Christian Ireland but might, in fact, be a relic of the sauna practices of the Vikings brought to Ireland in the ninth or tenth centuries. A ritual interpretation does have its problems though - what ritual and how would it fit into what was essentially a Christian culture from the sixth century onwards. None of these questions can be satisfactorily answered, but given the survival of much Pagan material through the fairy faith it is not impossible to suppose that a sweating tradition - if it provided enough practical gain for a community - could survive.

It has been noted that sweat houses are sometimes difficult to find, being tucked away from dwellings and it has also been reported that sweat houses were mostly used at this time of the year - around Autumn(3). Of course, this is close to the great festival of Samhain with its Underworld associations and ideas of mingling with the dead and of travelling between the worlds. It is well known that sweat lodges produce a consciousness altering experience and I suggest that this alone would make it a valuable practice for a community to retain. If the experience provides conditions in which people can interact with the spiritual forces that dominate their lives (whatever their religious framework) through vision, then this could take place in a Christian context as much as a Pagan one. The allied function of healing is still present but can take on a more spiritual aspect also. The proximity to Samhain would suggest an ancestral role with perhaps the consultation of important or wise ancestor figures by the local community which is a practice that is quite well attested in the Irish mythological tradition.

Such functions, if they existed, might have become simply folk traditions by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - enacted because it was necessary to do so or some disaster might happen, or as a way of propriating ‘The Gentry' (the fairy folk) or some other practice relating to the Sidhe. If anyone is in doubt about the strength of the fairy faith in Ireland you simply have to look at the case of Brigid Cleary in the early twentieth century who was burned, as it was believed that she was a changeling(4).

October is also a time when magic mushrooms appear in many fields up and down the country and at least one author has suggested the use of psilicybe to the purpose of the sweat houses. It is an intriguing suggestion as the timing is right and the association would link to the festival of Samhain. Although a secret mushroom taking cult in recent history might seem a little far fetched, when one looks at it from the perspective of the many (sometimes strange) practices undertaken as part of the fairy faith in Ireland - it becomes less outlandish. Certainly the combination of sweat, sensory deprivation and, perhaps, a mushroom drink connected with some significance relating to the time of the year or a Samhain cult of the dead could provide potent visions for all practising it. But as to the true purpose, who knows!

Although hard evidence and literary sources maybe lacking in this article, I can recount my own experience of a Celtic sweat undertaken in Wales this Summer. This was undertaken in a temporary structure rather than in a stone hut (for practical reasons) so the techniques were a bit more akin to the Native American practice. However, the entire ritual was timed over the period of three days and conducted in the context of the native mysteries of Britain. It was, in effect, a vision quest to contact the spirit of Merlin. This turned out to be a magical journey in more ways than one as a druidical mist clothed the mountain where it took place from the moment we arrived to the moment the sword was sheathed at the closing ceremony - evaporating within minutes. The spirit of Merlin made its presence felt both before and during the event and I can testify to the strength of a sweat conducted within a powerful tradition. The effect is like focusing an immense amount of power that allows the mind to reach out beyond the body. Certainly, Merlin manifested to those present. One of the strangest occurrences was that Merlin had communicated (to one of the company some time before the event) that he would send his geese to lead us. Sure enough, as the sweat started we heard a flock of geese fly out of the West and over the lodge. And all of this without hallucinogenic mushrooms!

Certainly the sweat produces altered states of consciousness that allow the practitioner to contact the powers of whatever spiritual system they practice and it is this, I believe, that points to the direction of their true and still unknown use.