A sharp intake of breath

Crouching, I squeeze through a low opening between the bracken and brambles in an old field wall and drop down into a low, stone-lined chamber.
It is eerily quiet. My eyes adjust to the dark.
I crawl towards the back of the chamber where some large flat stones lie. Turning, I see an old child’s mattress leaning against one wall, dirty and sagging, the only hint that anyone has been here.
Above, large flat slabs support the weight of earth and turf that covers the whole structure, a few long root tendrils reaching to the floor. The opening I dropped through is a low rectangle with a lintel and a sill half a meter or so above the rough floor.
A rustle and a deep breath outside, my heart races as I peek out, gingerly. My visitor is as surprised as me, stares briefly at this strange man emerging from the ground before loping off to join the other cattle in the next field.

Watercolour sketch of a sweathouse in the townland of Farranamanagh, West Cork

There are 246 sweathouses recorded on the Sites and Monuments Record in the Republic of Ireland. This one is unrecorded but a sweathouse is surely what it is. It sits in a field boundary in the townland of Farranamanagh – An Fearann Meánach – ‘Land of the Monks’, just a short distance from Kilcrohane. The chamber is covered with a mound and opposite the entrance is what appears to be a rectangular enclosure although it is very overgrown now. This may have been either to hold water for bathing or was a small building – a type of ‘changing room’ perhaps?

The site does not seem to appear on the OSI Historic 6 inch map which dates from 1831-1836 (although in all the available maps, it is on a join between two sheets), but it is clearly marked on the Cassini 6 inch map which dates between 1830 and 1930 and the 25 inch map that dates from 1888 so this site may date to the first half of the 19th Century. Both maps show other buildings in the field but there is no evidence of them now. The ‘well’ shown to the east of the site is not visible now but the area is very wet.

Section of Histotric 25" Ordnance Survey map
Historic 25″ Map (National Monuments Service)

Sweathouses are stone-lined chambers with narrow openings and covered in earth and sods. A fire was lit to heat the stones just like a modern sauna and probably used in a similar way. The majority of recorded sites are in Leitrim but there is also an active group there so many more may be waiting to be discovered elsewhere. Here is a description from the Leitrim Sweathouse Project:

How Sweathouses were used was documented mostly during the late 19th century. From these descriptions we know that the Sweathouse was packed with turf or wood, which was let burn for most of the day, before the hot ashes were raked out. The person using the Sweathouse would undress, sometimes blocking up the entrance with their clothes once inside. Then the patient ‘sweated’ inside for a designated time. It was commonly reported that on leaving the Sweathouse, the patient would immerse themselves in a nearby stream, well or pond. This ‘sweating’ cure was used to treat all sorts of ailments but commonly for rheumatism, arthritis, fevers, sciatica, sore eyes, gout, and to improve skin complexion.

Leitrim Sweathouse Project – Report 2021 (Page 6)

 There is one other sweathouse recorded in County Cork near Cahereagh which I hope to investigate soon.


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