The unearthing of Ireland’s mysterious naked sweathouses



Turf or wood was lit inside the sweathouse, before its entrance and roof vent were blocked, Harte said. After a few hours, smoke would be released, the embers swept out and a naked person would crawl into the stifling space and sweat for as long as they could bear. Eventually, they would emerge to cleanse and cool themselves in the nearby stream. Sometimes their condition improved, Harte said. The sweathouse had unfurled its earthen magic.

While sweating certainly has proven medical benefits – including helping to improve blood circulation and filter toxins out of the body – according to Dr Ronan Foley, a leading expert on Irish sweathouses from Ireland’s Maynooth University, these naked sauna sessions were often nothing more than a placebo.

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“It would be very reasonable to assume the sweathouse cure did not work all the time or for all people, even for the conditions it was recommended for, so it was never a panacea in that sense,” Foley said.

Yet, in Ireland’s isolated landscape, where modern medical facilities were few and far between, sweathouses remained popular for roughly 300 years. Foley said they were commonly used to treat rheumatism, arthritis, fevers and respiratory conditions, especially in rural areas like Leitrim, which is home to more than one-third of Ireland’s identified sweathouses. By comparison, very few are located near the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick, which had far more sophisticated health services than Leitrim until recent decades.


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