Updated: Feb 26, 2021
It all started in 2001... With his experience of many years in Alaska and California, cousin Aidan suggested to build a sweat lodge during a family gathering at Corralea.
The sweat lodge of the Native Americans of the Great Plains is a small, circular domed structure constructed of pliable saplings (often willow) with a single entrance. Its frame is tightly covered, with skins or today with blankets or sheets of plastic. A pit is dug in the centre of the structure to receive stones that are heated in a fire outside.
Our sweat lodge was a communal effort and was built in a half day foraging through the woods for willows and hazel branches. It was a solid structure but not very aesthetic with its blue tarpaulin and plastic covers.
Rocks were heated in the barbecue outside and precariously carried in a metal bucket in the centre of the structure. Steam was generated by throwing water on the hot stones. It was basic but we enjoyed the experience and the conviviality of this occasion!
The idea grew slowly to have a more permanent structure.
We turned to Irish History to study the Irish Sweat Houses.
Very little is known about the origin and the uses of sweat houses in Ireland.
Although there are similarities with Finnish and Turkish baths, the Irish sweathouses are unique in many ways. We know they fell into disuse with the coming of “modern” medicine and the arrival of dispensaries throughout the country.
At least 120 were recorded in Co. Cavan & Leitrim and 20 of the 32 sweathouses listed in Fermanagh are in the border area around Belcoo.
What do we know?
Irish Sweathouses are small, 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-turf, or whatever came to hand.
They were usually built against a bank or on rising ground. They were always well away from dwelling houses and often from tracks.
It is generally agreed that there was a fire lit inside which would be kept burning for up to 24h until the complete structure was hot. Turf was generally used although if turf was not locally available wood, heather and brambles were used. It is most likely that there was always enough ventilation between the loosely packed stones to allow the fire to burn and smoke to escape.
An example of a sweat house in County Cavan, in the heart of the Geopark
The ashes would be swept out and the sweathouse was ready for use. Some reports suggest that rushes were put on the floor and others that water was thrown on the hot stones to create steam.
It has been suggested that groups of maximum three or four women, or men only, would enter the sweathouse, all naked. Indeed, it is reported of pranks being played by removing the clothes from the door-way and going off with them.
For us, the prospect of therapeutic gatherings to purify and cleanse the body, mind, and spirit became attractive but we were faced with insurmountable obstacles (such as insurance) and the lack of skill and knowledge to re-create the Irish Sweat House.
Nevertheless we cleared a small area by the lake facing the Spring & Autumn setting sun, and dreamed on…..
Finally in 2020, we had, during Lock down, plenty of time to let our dream blossom and create the closest (and most practical) build we could, to a traditional sweat house / sauna.
Find out all about the build in my next blog...