“Much that once was is lost, for none now live, who remember it … And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost”. (Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Rings).
Sweat houses are a known feature in many areas of Ireland. More familiarly known to most people as being associated with Native American culture, in fact they have been around in Ireland since the time of the Celts. It is thought they were used to cure many ailments, particularly aches and pains of the joints. Certainly there would have been some ritual or religious significance to their use, and this may also explain why many are found close to fairy forts.
Irish sweat houses are built of stone, with a small low door. There is a hole in the roof to allow the smoke from a turf fire to escape. When used, a large fire is lit in the centre of the house and allowed to burn for several hours. When the temperature is sufficiently high, the fire would be removed. The person (or persons), would then crawl inside, sitting on rushes or straw. When those inside felt they had sweated sufficiently, they would emerge and immerse themselves in the cold water of the nearby stream or pool.
Is healing the sole purpose of a sweat house? It poses an interesting question. As the fires would need to have burned for some hours to achieve sufficient high temperature to heat up the stones, it would have needed a very large amount of turf to accomplish it. Is this something that a family or a community could afford? Would they have been willing to invest that degree of time, effort and precious fuel to cure joint pain? There is no doubt they were used for healing. However, I also feel that they had a spiritual significance too. Perhaps this purpose has been lost and forgotten in the mist of time, as Ireland embraced Christianity.
The sweat lodge ceremony, older than recorded history, is practiced in some form by every culture in the world, particularly in North American, Scandinavian, Baltic and Eastern European cultures. In those countries, they were used for healing, purification and other world journeying. It is very likely that their purpose in Ireland was the same, and that this spiritual purpose was discontinued as Christianity flourished.
It has been suggested that sweathouses were generally used around autumn; the same time as Samhain, with its associations of communing with the ancestors and of travelling between the worlds. The ceremony would enable the users of sweathouses to produce a consciousness altering experience, in which people could interact with the spirit world through visions to enable healing, divination, or prophesy.
So, if we look at other cultures, and the amount of effort to create the sweat house, it strongly suggests that Irish sweat houses would have had both a healing function, and a spiritual one. This made these structures extremely important to the local community at the time of their use.
This sweat house is just outside Dungannon, in Tyrone, and sits near the banks of a stream, on the edge of a quiet lane and field. On the hill above it, stands a fairy fort. These days, not many people know it is there, or visit it, yet it is one of the best examples in the country. At the time of their introduction, sweat houses would have been important to the local community, central to their lives and identity. Today, it is an important part of our rich culture and heritage. In our landscape of vivid culture and history, the sweat house has its own beauty, it is unique and irreplaceable. Perhaps one day, everyone will get to know of them again.