I recently visited a small but distinctive archaeological site at Creevaghbaun, Co. Galway. It consists of diminutive well-built structure that is known locally as a ‘teach allais’ or sweat house (teach allais is the Irish for sweat house). The building is clearly visible from the nearby Tuam to Barnaderg road and is located in an area of wet, marshy ground. The Carmelite monastery of Creevaghbaun, which was founded in the early 14th century, lies approximately 100m to the north of the sweat house but is probably not related.
The sweat house measures approximately 1.80m long (east-west) by 0.70m wide and it is built out of well-dressed limestone blocks that are mortared together. Access is gained via a flat-headed doorway, but when I visited the interior was flooded so I didn’t go in. Approximately 5m to the north of the sweat house is a holy well dedicated to St. Bridget. The well is enclosed by a mortared stone wall that has an internal bench and a south facing entrance (towards the sweat house). A carved effigy of woman, possibly representing St. Bridget, is present on the inner face of the wall, directly opposite the entrance. This effigy had some text below it, which I found very hard to decipher, but apparently contains the date 1710 (after the RMP files).
The origins of Irish sweat houses remains obscure but it appears they were used since at least the 18th century to relieve a number of ailments most notably rheumatism. They were typically simple structures, normally consisting of bee-hive shaped stone huts with corbelled roofs and small ‘creep’ entrances. Sods of turf were often added to the roofs for added insulation. Before use a large fire was lit in the centre of the house and allowed to burn for several hours. When the temperature was deemed sufficiently high the fire was then removed and the person or persons crawled in and sat on rushes or straw. They then waited in the hot chamber until a sufficient amount of sweating had occurred. After this they clambered out and plunged themselves into cold water. For this reason sweat houses were often located beside streams, lakes or artificial plunge pools/wells. In Ireland the majority of sweat houses appear to occur in the north and west of the island, although recent research carried out by Munster Archaeology has revealed a number of previously unrecorded examples in the south of the country, especially in counties Cork and Kerry.
An excellent 19th century account from Rathlin Island off the coast of Co. Antrim describes sweat houses thus:
‘Small buildings called sweat-houses are erected, somewhat in the shape of a beehive, constructed with stones and turf, neatly put together; the roof being formed of the same material, with a small hole in the centre. There is also an aperture below, just large enough to admit one person, on hands and knees. When required for use, a large fire is lighted in the middle of the floor, and allowed to burn out, by which time the house has become thoroughly heated; the ashes are then swept away, and the patient goes in, having first taken off his clothes, with the exception of his undergarment, which he hands to a friend outside. The hole in the roof is then covered with a flat stone and the entrance is also closed up with sods, to prevent the admission of air. The patient remains within until he begins to perspire copiously, when (if young and strong) he plunges into the sea, but the aged or weak retire to bed for a few hours.‘ (Dickson 1995).
The Creevaghbaun sweat house is probably the finest example of a ‘teach allais‘ in the country. Indeed, the fact that it is so well made (possibly from stone robbed out of the nearby Carmelite monastery) combined with its relatively large entrance has led some to wonder was it originally used as a sweat house at all. However, when local tradition, the building’s small size and its location beside a well are all taken into consideration, its use as ‘teach allais‘ seems most likely. Either way this structure is well worth a visit, just bring wellies!
Dickson, J. M. 1995. A History of the Island of Rathlin by Mrs. Grange, Rathlin 1851. Coleraine