Stories of the sweathouse: A beehive-shaped bolthole for battling maladies

There are at least 292 sweathouses on the island, 104 of them in Co Leitrim

Farmer Michael McPartland (right) with his son Rory and his grandson Paddy (12) at a sweathouse on their family farm at Cornageeha, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Donald McCarthy

Farmer Michael McPartland (right) with his son Rory and his grandson Paddy (12) at a sweathouse on their family farm at Cornageeha, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Donald McCarthy

 

Legend has it that they provided a range of cures for ailments ranging from arthritis and gout to infertility, and now a research project is under way, which may explain why more than a third of sweathouses on the island of Ireland were located in Co Leitrim.

No one knows if the people of Leitrim were more prone to stiff joints than the inhabitants of other counties, but when archaeologist Aidan Harte started the Leitrim sweathouse project last June, he was aware of 98 sweathouses which had been documented in the county. Since then he and a team of 30 volunteers have located six more, bringing the tally to 104.

Given there are just 292 sweathouses on the island, including 246 in the Republic, he is intrigued about why so many are in Leitrim. “There are only three in Kerry, for example, and one in Wicklow, ” he said.

The archaeologist sought volunteers to collect and catalogue all existing information about the Leitrim sweathouses, and to gather oral histories about the sites, hoping that by engaging with the community his team might learn more about who built and used the structures.

One of his volunteers, Donald McCarthy, who has been living in north Leitrim for eight years, very quickly discovered two sweathouses which are still intact and had never been documented – just by talking to his neighbours.

While 98 Leitrim sweathouses had been recorded on maps and other documents, there is no visible trace left of 43 of these structures so Mr McCarthy was delighted to find two with roofs still intact.

History

“A lot of them have been damaged or have been tumbled by grazing animals,” he said.

“They are part of our history but the history of the small people who did not build castles or grand houses.”

Sweathouses, which were often beehive-shaped and built into hillsides, were usually located near streams or other water sources and it is believed many of the patients trying to sweat out their ailments plunged into the water at the end of their treatment.

The first documented references to sweathouses came courtesy of French man Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye , who did a walking tour of Ireland in the 1790s and in his diary noted: “Wherever there are four or five cabins near each other there is sure to be a sweating-house.”

Sweathouses fell gradually out of use with the advent of modern medicine and rural dispensaries, particularly from the 1850s, although, according to Mr Harte, there are reports of some having been used in the 1950s and 1960s.

“What is not clear is when they were first used, or where the tradition originated,” he said.

Records

From existing records it is known sweathouses were heated by turf or wood and then, after the hot ashes were raked out, the patient entered and sweated inside for a designated period.

Mr McCarthy said that while there are no songs or poems about sweathouses, locals have stories to tell about them. When he told his neighbour Michael McPartland about the project, the farmer pointed to one 20 metres away, which had been a touchstone for generations of his family.

As a child Michael used to play in the sweathouse, which is on his land in the townland of Cornageeha, close to the river Shannon, and his children and grandchildren have played games there too.

“We always heard that people would light a fire inside, and then rake out the ashes and lie there and sweat and sweat, and then jump into the river. It’s nice to think that 100 years ago people were using it and that it was of some value to them,” he said.

Mr McCarthy found another sweathouse in the townland of Killooman, which, he said, “is looking out over half of Ulster and a quarter of Connacht. They chose the sites well”.

The Leitrim sweathouse project, which is funded by the Heritage Council and supported by Leitrim County Council, continues until October. On August 19th, as part of heritage week, the sweathouse project will host an event at the sweathouse beside Parke’s Castle on the shores of Lough Gill.