If you happened to be strolling around Lough Hyne in West Cork in recent weeks you might have seen some red-faced and swimsuit-clad people stepping gingerly across the road before wading (and probably shrieking) into the seasalt lake.
Welcome to Shirley’s mobile sauna, or Bosca Beatha, which was stationed in West Cork for three weeks earlier this year.
The first time I used it I was nervous – it was nighttime, about 6C and I knew a plunge into the cold, dark waters of the lake awaited us.
I am not brave about cold water. But I am a convert.
The experience is rawer, more invigorating and somehow more real than enjoying a sauna at a leisure centre.
I tried to describe my post-sauna feelings by likening myself to a Baked Alaska – cool on the inside, hot on the outside.
It might not feel this way to everyone – my friend said she felt the reverse, hot inside, cool on the outside, but we both felt incredibly cleansed and refreshed, and with the added discovery that while a sauna is not advertised as a hangover cure, the experience of plunging into icy cold water definitely speeds up the recovery process.
The sauna is a social experience as much as a physical one. Where else can you sit thigh to sweaty thigh with a complete stranger, in a superheated environment and feel completely unselfconscious?
I am thinking of putting together a book of sauna conversations. There is something about sitting in 80c heat in the mostly dark before and after a plunge in icy waters that opens channels of communication.
Conversation flows whether you want it to or not on diverse topics; politics, the state of the nation, travel, plans for the future or tall tales from the past.
Strangers will tell you about their dreams, difficulties or fledgling business projects. Our group of women got into a frank discussion about relationships, much to the amusement of the single forgotten male in our midst.
Visitors to the Bosca Beatha don’t follow an age profile, or a physical profile. Regulars during the three weeks the sauna remained at Lough Hyne included hardened lake swimmers and passers-by, and in words from the Bosca Beatha Facebook page “dippers and divers, talkers and walkers, mermaids and lappers”.
While we enjoyed our time in the sauna, a man and his two daughters arrived, the youngest only seven years old. The kids didn’t stay for too long, but did rush outside to paddle in the water.
I met a German friend as she emerged steaming from the lake. She told me that when she was a child in Germany her parents would put them into the sauna when they had the sniffles and dunk them in a barrel of icy water after. She said it definitely worked.
The sauna is not part of Irish or UK culture. We tend to first encounter them as an indoor experience at a leisure centre.
Yet the outdoor sauna is an integral part of Scandinavian culture and has been recorded in Finland from the Middle Ages.
According to the Lonely Planet Travel Guide, in Finland a sauna “is not a luxury but an essential daily experience and an integral part of their culture, and a place to “cure ills, talk business and even give birth”.
However, there are conflicting viewpoints on the health benefits of saunas.
According to Dr Harvey Simon, editor-in-chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch “... there is little evidence they have health benefits above and beyond relaxation and a feeling of well-being”.
That is ironic, considering how desperate people are to experience feelings of well-being and relaxation and how much people self-medicate to feel good!
So if these are the only benefits, they are enough for me.
Bosca Beatha is Shirley’s business, but her intention is to offer people a chance to come together and connect in a healing space.
It offers a chance to reconnect with nature in a way that many of us have forgotten, and you really do feel that connection as you plunge into the lake on a frosty night, stars overhead and below sparks of bioluminescence churned up by your splashing.
Shirley also supplies delicious spicy tea to complete your feeling of wellbeing. My limbs felt so relaxed afterwards, all tension gone.
As you leave the lake you experience the sensation of your temperature somehow equalising and you find you can stand around chatting to those dressed, and for a few moments you are neither hot nor cold but absolutely perfect.
- Bosca Beatha will be at Garretstown, Co Cork from April 3-6 and at Lough Hyne from April 11-12.