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The Irish Way
Young women, wishing to improve their complexion after making peat or pulling flax, used to have the sweat bath, as it removed the kells, or stains and made them look nice and white. -Rev. D.B. Mulcahy, “An Ancient Irish Hot-Air Bath”
Meanwhile, in Ireland, a primitive kind of sweat bath that resembled a casual mound of sod and stone, unlike bath houses on the continent, quietly cleansed the wearers of green. We can only speculate on how they began. Since the Romans had no contact with the Irish while they reigned in England, perhaps the Irish sweat bath was inspired by raiding Vikings in the eighth century. It is more likely the Irish conceived their own, as did other cultures in cold climates.
We don’t know if religious ritual accompanied early Irish baths; most accounts claim it was used primarily for therapeutic purposes.
The Irish doctor Barter, champion of the Turkish bath, called his inventive sweat bath “Irish-Roman.” His sophisticated constructions had little in common with the original Irish hot-air bath.
“Until recent times,” wrote Seaton F. Milligan in 1890, “the hot-air bath was known over many parts of Ireland as a cure for rheumatism. In localities where English and Scottish settlers were in the majority, it fell into disuse; but amongst Irish-speaking inhabitants its value was fully known and appreciated.” Milligan received a “most interesting” communication from a Patrick Shields, Esq. of Tyrone County:
“Sweat houses were common in this part of the country until 50 years ago, and from that time up to twenty years since, they were going out of use. It was heated by fires of turf; when sufficiently hot the coals, ashes, etc. were removed, and some cool thing such as Sods, rushes, or stones put in for the persons to stand upon. When men used it, as many as six or eight stripped off and went in, then all openings were closed except what afforded a little ventilation. A person remained outside to attend to these matters. When they could suffer the heat no longer, the flag was removed, and they came out and plunged into a pool of water within a yard or two of the sweat house, where they washed, got well rubbed and put on their clothes. In case of women, they put on a bathing dress whilst using the bath, and generally omitted the plunge or cold bath. People had to be careful not to lean against the walls inside, otherwise they would get burned.”
Reverend D.B. Mucahy, while on an excursion to the Island of Rathlin, discovered a sweat bath on the farm of the Widow M’Curdy. “Mrs. Daragh, a native of Rathlin who left it sixty years ago, remembers these sweating-houses being used. She said that young women wishing to improve their complexion after making peat or pulling flax, used to have the bath, as it removed the kells, or stains, and made them look nice and white.’
Milligan described one of the variations that survived in Ireland. “This most interesting example of the ancient Irish hot-air bath is situated about three miles west from Maghera on the way to Dungiven, in the townland of Tirkane, on the farm of Francis Doherty. I have ascertained that in Co. Monaghan people still take a hot-air bath in the following manner: A number of bricks are heated to redness in the fire; they are then placed under a creel; the person who wants to induce perspiration sits on it, with a pair of blankets fastened round his neck enclosing all; a good sweat is procured in this way.”