Emerald Isle

Donn of the Dead

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

Echoes of ancient times in Donn of the Dead

It is in the nature of fairytales and legends passed down from generation to generation that they might sometimes change and shift to fit the lives of the people of the time, and the more mysterious the figure the more legends accrue to it! And so it is with Donn of the Dead, king of the dead at the red tower of the dead, whose three sons cried “we ride the horses of Donn - although we are alive, we are dead!” as they slew High King Conaire Mor. Many's the time his white horses have been seen abroad on stormy nights.

The oldest tales of the usher of the dead and gatekeeper of the shadowlands speak of him as a healer and teacher, who held court in Knockfierna, the Hill of Truth, in a great mound surrounded by dolmens called the “Giants Graves”, where wanderers on Samhain might find him as an old man, clothed in white, instructing a large number of students in “the mysteries of the creation since the stars began to shine”.

Donn is also known as the chief of the Sand Hill fairies in Dooghmore in County Clare, and the great Irish poet Andrew Mac Crúitín, one of the last poets who wrote in the old syllabic bardic metre, wrote of him.

Beneath those sandy cliffs of old repute,
O Mighty Don! Accept my deep salute;
No stranger’s greeting to a wretched Gael,
To thee I bring but the devout All Hail
Of a pilgrim caught by night’s cold shade,
Whose zeal long-suffering has not yet decayed…

Thou wouldst return some solacing reply,
As in my deep distress to thee alone I cry.
Out by the shore, forlorn I wear away,
Left like a stranded vessal to decay;
Or like a gammon table set aside,
Where neither man nor sporting dice abide,
Or like poor Oisín grieving sore and sighing
When all his bands beneath the stones were lying…

And nowadays my paths can’t trace
A true Milesians or [one] of the Old Saxon race
From east to west of all my native land
On whom for shade or shelter I could stand….;
Hence, generous Don, thy palace doors unloose,
And let the poor, forsaken bard repose.

Donn is also known to be the father of the Maguires in County Leitrim and the father of Diarmuid O'Donn of the Fianna.

His festival was the time of Samhain, the halfway mark between summer and winter, when the wall between this world and the next was thinnest, and spirits could pass through. The ghosts of the family were invited into the home while less wholesome shades were kept away with charms and chants. Costumes and masks were worn while walking outside, for fear a dark phantom might recognise you and do you harm! Bridges, crossroads, old mounds and graveyards were to be avoided on this night.

Food was readied for both the living and the dead, for if the spirits were not appeased, they would grow wrathful and bad luck would plague the household for the coming year.

The bones of cattle and sheep were cast into great fires, and all other fires were put out, to be lit again in the morning from the main bonfire, and none greater than at Tlachtga near Tara, meant to remind the sun to return. Three times sunwise around the fire people would dance, and they might then see those who were to die in the coming year, or a maiden might see her future husband – but it was a risky business – for they might meet themselves, or even Donn!

On this day, it was said, the souls of the dead, those who had died throughout the year, would assemble in the house of Donn, teach Donn, to partake of his hospitality before departing to the west. Fishermen close by the islands to the south would see strange boats landing and deep voices calling the names of those who disembarked. As is recorded in a ninth century text, “ To me, to my house, you shall come after your death”.

Other legends tell of the first of the Milesians, a lordly man called Donn, who came with his brothers Amergin the wise poet, Ir, Heremon, Arranan, Colpa and Heber to conquer Ireland. When they landed they were met by three Sidhe Queens,  Banba, Fodhla and Ériu.

Ériu took one look at the invaders and knew the old ways were to pass, so she prophecised great fortune for them and asked that they name the nation after her. Donn laughed and said they owed her nothing, but would succeed by the strength of their arms and the power of their gods alone. Greatly angered by this,  Ériu said that he'd have no conquest and no sons to carry on his line.

When the Milesians later met with the De Danann kings at Tara, they were told the De Danann forces weren't yet ready to do battle, so Amergin courteously agreed to pull their ships back nine waves' breadth from the shore, and if their landing could be prevented they'd go home and never return.

When they withdrew, the druids of the De Danann raised up mighty storms and scattered their fleets, wrecking many ships and drowning their warriors, including Donn himself, and so the words of Ériu came to pass. So now the place of his drowning at bull rock is known as the house of Donn, where the dead wait for their ferry.

This rock is marked on the map below, although it's not easy to get to!


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