Sweat houses are one of the smaller field monuments surviving in the Irish landscape. The origins of sweathouses are unclear, but they function in the same manner as Scandinavian saunas. This project involved study of thirty sweathouses in County Leitrim to consider their significance, vulnerability, what repairs they might need, and how they could be interpreted and appreciated.
Straddling Sliabh an Iarainn in County Leitrim and scattered through the surrounding landscape are small almost invisible testaments to the past. Marked on old maps, and with most already lost, sweathouses, or “teach alluis”, are found from Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland to south Cork, with examples in Derry, Tyrone, Sligo, Longford, Louth, Roscommon, Galway, Tipperary, Waterford and Wicklow. However, the largest concentration of sweathouses are found in an area comprising modern Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh.
Sweathouses were used for the treatment for a wide range of ailments up to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily rheumatism but also including sciatica, lameness, sore eyes, gout, skin disorders, psychiatric disorders, impotence and infertility. Surviving records indicate that treatment was often a group activity for 4-8 persons. The sweathouse was heated by filling the interior with fuel (turf, heather, wood etc. as available), and firing the structure for a period of up to two days to heat the stone structure, the hot ashes were then raked out and the interior floor lined with bracken, grass or straw. The bathers entered and blocked the entrance with turves, clothes or some other means. The sweating period could last a number of hours while the structure retained heat. Some authors note that water was thrown on hot stones to create steam. Afterwards, the “patients” would either take a cold plunge in the nearby water source, or go home and rest for a few hours, or simply return to their normal daily activities.
There is no strict plan, and no definitive sweathouse. They range from rectangular or square, to sub-spherical and oval, and in cross section normally appear hemispherical. Most are built against a bank or on rising ground, although some free-standing examples also survive. The roof may be formed by corbelled stones, or using stone lintels, and the sweathouse was accessed via a low entrance (<70 cms high) on the down-slope side. The internal chamber is normally floored with rammed earth, though flags and cobbles also occur. The chamber may have head-height of up to 1.5 to more than 2 metres, with either a small hole in the apex of the roof acting as a chimney, or the smoke allowed to dissipate through the loosely-built stones. Purpose-built chimneys are rare though surviving examples can be found in neighbouring Cavan. The stone structures were covered with a sod mound, and noted on 19th century ordnance survey maps as “sweat houses” or “vapour houses”.
The origins of sweathouses are unclear, and though they function in the same manner as Scandinavian saunas, a direct connection has not been made. Some authors note the similarity with Early Christian period ecclesiastical bee-hive cells, however there is little published work and few excavations to allow an accurate chronology of origin, use and development to be gathered. Anthony Weir and other authors cite the earliest reference as the Frenchman Latocnaye (1796-7), who noted sweathouses in common use during his tour of Ireland, recording that “”wherever there are four or five cabins near each other there is sure to be a sweating-house”. The concentration of these sites indicates the substantial rural populations of the past. Sweathouses fell gradually out of use with the advent of access of modern medicine and dispensaries particularly from c.1851, though the sweathouse on Rathlin Island remained in use till 1955.
Sweathouses, like so many archaeological monuments, are rapidly disappearing from the Irish landscape. Of the hundred or so marked on early 19th century maps of County Leitrim, less than half survive – with many of these as foundations or disturbed. The almost intact sweathouses at Stralongford and Gubnaveagh in Co. Leitrim take on an added significance as surviving, almost functioning, examples of a lost world, and form an important component of our cultural heritage.
This project was undertaken on behalf of Ballinamore Tourism Initiative, with an article on sweathouses written up for Mac An hAirmhaí, B. and Ócinneide, S. [eds] 2005, Mountain Echoes: Sliabh an Iarainn’s Story. Ballinamore, Leitrim. The Sliabh an Iarainn Visitor Centre provides information about the Arigna and the Sliabh an Iarainn mountains area, in Drumshanbo County Leitrim, with special emphasis on the railway, the canal, lakes, iron and coal mining.