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Rediscovering Ireland’s sea sauna tradition: ‘It’s like a modern-day pub, except you leave feeling great’

Going hot and cold for mobile saunas, the health craze coming to a coastline or riverfront near you

“It’s the pain really,” says a handsome man in red shorts. He is sitting on a higher bench, behind me in the sauna. Sighing in satisfaction, he chucks some more water on the hot coals. The heat increases again and I move down another level, where it’s (just) a little cooler.

Outside, a more or less Instagram-ready couple have shimmied down the rocks and are heading across the beach for a dunk in the winter-cold sea. I am at the Wild Wellness Sauna at Garretstown Beach just outside Kinsale in Co Cork, and it is remarkable: because I don’t like saunas, and I definitely don’t like plunging into icy waters; but after a go of both, I am elated and hooked.

Beach saunas have been a phenomenon of the past 12 months, and yet getting sweaty has a heritage in Ireland dating back to ancient times. Bronwyn Connolly set up Wild Wellness in 2021, having bought a sauna to help her with arthritic pain. Making it mobile, she quickly realised she could share the experience. While she says the sauna has helped with her arthritis, she is slow to make specific health claims. “The stress relief is massive,” she says. “It’s great for your skin, and people say they sleep much better. The social side is fantastic too,” she adds.

This is definitely true. While I had vaguely anticipated a calm, yogic vibe, sauna sessions at Wild Wellness are chatty and full of craic – possibly something to do with sweating in your togs with random strangers, coupled with the endorphin high that follows the sea plunge.


As the chat develops, it soon emerges that there is a whole community, including beach sauna operators and those who like to dip in, in different locations. From music sessions to salt scrubs, barrel dips to candlelit ramps into the sea, it is a whole new and highly enticing world. Another couple on a day out from the city are in their underwear, as they hadn’t anticipated a sauna, but stopping at the adjacent horsebox coffee shop, they reckoned they couldn’t pass it up. Another man has recently returned from Peru. “Being home feels like being hit with a shovel,” he says, adding that the sauna is definitely helping him cope with re-entry.

Alongside the craic factor, scientific studies differ on the health benefits of saunas, but Danish scientist and author Susanna Søberg is the lay person’s go-to guru on the subject. Her book Winter Swimming, published in 2022, recommends, with the kind of practical exactitude that makes you think it must be meaningful, 57 minutes of sauna coupled with 11 minutes of cold water immersion per week. Spread it out over a couple of beach sauna sessions, and those freezing dips aren’t actually too daunting.

Connolly’s sauna is a bespoke affair, made to her own design. A large oblong with a fire at one end, the tiered seating is gently curved, making conversation easier if that takes your fancy. But the big draw is the window that looks out on to the sweep of Garretstown Bay, across to the Old Head of Kinsale. Temperatures in the hottest spot (upper right hand corner, diagonally farthest from the fire) are about 90 degrees, with the lower bench hovering about 70. Connolly does evening sunset sessions and candlelit ones after dark, but a morning sauna, as the weather rolls across the horizon and the light dances on the water, must surely be one of the best ways to start a day.

Wild Wellness follows in the footsteps of Shirley Fitzpatrick’s Bosca Beatha, which had been at Garretstown as well as other locations around the country since 2012. Fitzpatrick initiated the mobile sauna movement in Ireland. “People said it wasn’t possible,” she says. “But I persevered, and the first time I brought it to Garretstown and experienced the sauna and sea combination it was magic. It felt so amazing, it blew my mind, and relaxed my body.”

Today, she is content to stay put. “There isn’t a need, there are mobile saunas at nearly all the locations I used to set up at.” From Bosca Beatha’s more permanent home in Co Wicklow’s Glenmalure Valley (it also pops up at the summer festivals), Fitzpatrick is training in Pirtis, the Lithuanian sauna ritual, which has been passed down via an unbroken oral tradition over many centuries. Pirtis is the Lithuanian word for sauna, but in these parts, it is taken to mean the ritual itself, which includes body scrubs and birch whisking alongside your sweat session.

“I feel I am only now realising what I created,” says Fitzpatrick. “And how powerful and transformational this experience of communal bathing really is. We have had this as part of our culture too. The sweat houses are evidence of that, it has just been asleep and this is the great awakening.” She’s right: sauna traditions are to be found around the world, including Finnish saunas, hammams, and the Japanese mushi-buro, but the Irish sweat house has been largely forgotten, until recently.

A 2021 study by Katie Kearns and Timo Ylimaunu recorded the sites of 290 sweat houses in Ireland, with the majority being found in Leitrim and its neighbouring counties. This was followed by Leitrim County Council’s Leitrim Sweathouse Project, conducted in partnership with the Heritage Council, which trained volunteer archaeologists and researchers, and added 19 more to the tally. They are sure there are more.

Described as being like “an extreme stone sauna”, Irish sweat houses date from the early 1600s, and look more like little cairns or small individual raised graves than the inviting wooden barrels and other contraptions that now dot our beautiful coastlines. Apparently, the practice was to heat the internal space with turf, before raking out the embers and sliding in naked to sweat for as long as you could bear it.

Your sea-sauna practice is different. Purists may start and end with the cold part, but after 15 minutes of heating up, your core is so warm that the sea is easily manageable. Sure, your toes are telling you it’s cold, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. An hour’s sauna session gives you at least three dips, and the best (legal) high I could possibly describe. As “mobile” is the name of the game, not all saunas have changing areas, so check before you embark, and arrive prepared. Dry robes at the ready, it’s time to dive in.

Sessions at Wild Wellness start from €10 for 30 minutes, An hour session at Bosca Beatha costs €20,

Dip in: More mobile saunas around Ireland

The Sea Sauna

Tower Bay, Portrane, Co Dublin

Architect Andrew McAllister says his love for the outdoors grew during Covid. He set up The Sea Sauna in 2022 to warm everyone up after swimming. “Initially, I had a romanticised view of opening maybe one day a week for a couple of hours, with many thinking I was mad at the time. But once you try it, you get hooked,” he says. Now with two saunas, McAllister says “it is a great place to gather and socialise, connect with strangers and be present in the moment . . . it’s like a modern-day pub, except you leave feeling great and with a natural healthy high.” Quiet sessions are offered too, as well as yoga, meditation, fire drumming and seasonal ceremonies.

Coastal Cabin

Garryvoe, Co Cork

Former hotel manager John Hickey got into the sauna and sea swimming combo for pain relief following back surgery. Now his Coastal Cabin caters to everyone, from visitors to Ballymaloe to the local GAA and rugby teams. Includes full-moon saunas, and chilled-out playlist sessions.

Helios Sauna

Bray seafront, Co Wicklow

You’re plunging into cold water barrels rather than the sea for this one, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be chopping wood outside, so you can watch them breaking a sweat as you sweat.

The Hot Pod

Co Waterford

With four locations along the Waterford coastline from Dungarvan to Dunmore East, Ed and Dee Flavin’s Hot Pod saunas soak up some spectacular views. “You don’t have to be a swimmer to enjoy the sea and sauna combo. A quick dip to refresh is enough to boost the system. With both the cold and the heat offering benefits alone, when used together it really makes the experience even better,” says Dee.


Baginbun, Co Wexford and Renvyle, Co Galway

With the tagline “We make wet, cold wild weather even better”, Sweathouse has locations in Baginbun near Fethard-on-Sea in Wexford, and Galway’s dark sky area of Renvyle, which adds celestial drama to night-time sessions on clear nights. Options include shared saunas and silent saunas.

Driftwood Sauna

An Spidéal, Co Galway

Edward Corbett and Monique Tomiczek’s sauna and plunge pool set-up gives you amazing views of the Aran Islands and the Burren from their location at Céibh Nua an Spidéil in Connemara. “The sauna has never been needed more than in these fast-paced and disconnected times,” they say, noting that the sea sauna experience is a world away from the kind you find at the gym. Includes guided group sessions, Pirtis, Aufguss (the word comes from the German for “infusion”), and full-moon saunas with hot cacao and marshmallows for afters.

Hot Box Sauna

Counties Meath, Sligo, Kilkenny/Carlow

Daniel O’Connor, Liam Irwin and Luke Williams first set up on the banks of the river Boyne in Co Meath, adding locations in Sligo and Graiguenamanagh on the Kilkenny-Carlow border. “We got started over lockdown, when a passion for learning to build led us to building a sauna.” The Graiguenamanagh spot now includes a floating pontoon and enclosed plunge pool, so you can jump into the Barrow in perfect safety, all year round.

Find out more: Check out the Saunascape blog for a county-by-county list of mobile saunas in Ireland, with prices and booking info. Or if you’re planning to take the plunge and buy (or build) your own, its energy cost calculator should be a useful tool to make sure there’s no cold shock when your heating bill comes in.