Mythical figure in Irish literature and folklore. The name simply represents the adjective ‘donn’, meaning ‘brown’. This was sometimes writ ten ‘dond’, which is incorrect, for the word in fact derives from a Celtic ‘dhuosnos’.
In ancient times the adjective could also signify ‘dark’, and the character Donn is peren nially associated with the shadowy realm of the dead. He is, however, also represented as an ances tor of those who die, and his name therefore seems to have been originally an epithet of the deity known as the Daghdha. Donn is referred to in several early texts. Particularly striking is a reference in the deathtale of Conaire, who is slain by three redhaired men, ‘sons of Donn, king of the dead at the red tower of the dead’. These three are further quoted as saying, ‘we ride the horses of Donn although we are alive, we are dead!’
In treating of this shady personification of death, the writers of pseudohistory rationalised him into one of the leaders of the fanciful ancient migration to Ireland of the Gaelic people. These writers described how one Donn, son of Mil. was drowned at Inbhear Sceine (Kenmare Bay in Co Kerry). In this, they were echoing an earlier belief that in that area the deity inhabited the island known as Teach Duinn (literally Donn's House’, and now called Bull Rock). One 9thcentury source attributes a very significant line to this personage: ‘To me, to my house, you shall all come after your deaths’. Other sources, from the 8th to the 10th centuries, refer to Teach Duinn as the place ‘where the dead assemble’, and describe deceased people as travelling to and from it. Repeated references in the literature show that Teach Duinn was regarded as the western extremity of Ireland, and it is tempt ing to connect the locating of Donn there with some accounts given by the 2ndcentury Greek writer Plutarch. Referring to a deity who lives in a sleepy state on an island off the land to the west of Britain, Plutarch calls him by the name of a Greek god of the dead, Cronus; and again the same writer describes how fishermen in that land were wont to hear strange boats travelling at night to a distant destination where the names of those who disembarked were called out.
The word ‘donn’ could be viewed as the opposite of ‘find’, which meant ‘illumination’ or ‘brightness’, and that the Celtic otherworld included a dialectic between these two colours is clear from the early lore of the personage Find. Such a dialectic was, indeed, the background to the conflict in the Ulster Cycle between the two great bulls called the Finnbheannach and the Donn Cuailnge. Its genesis must be quite old, but originally the figure represented by Donn was not in any way dependent on Find (q. v.) and Donn survived in tradition as a great personage in his own right. Mediaeval literature tends to associate his name with each and every otherworld place, but since the name had come to be used in a generalised sense to mean ‘otherworld lord’ it is clear that most of these allusions are not to him specifically. Folk tradition testifies that two locations, in addition to Bull Rock, preserved definite vestiges of his cult. These were Cnoc Firinne (Knockfiema. a very conspicuous hill in the middle of Co Limerick) and the ‘Dumhcha’ or great sanddunes at Dunbeg on the west coast of Co Clare.
At Knockfiema he was known as Donn Firinne. and the entrance to his palace was believed to be through a cavity near the summit of the hill. Folklore told of people being brought into the hill to be with Donn when they died, and this was not seen to conflict with Christian belief since it was rationalised by the opinion that such people were not really dead but had been kidnapped by him. He was said to often leave his residence at night, riding a white horse, and such folk accounts of him have been influenced by legends of other spiritual beings. For instance, he once took a man with him on a terrifying ride throughout Ireland (see Ghosts), and he was said to take away accom plished hurlers to join his team in hurlingmatches against rival otherworld communities (see Fairies). Like the fairies also, he resented people interfering with his hill by ploughing on its slopes but being quite genial, he preferred to appear and warn peo ple to stop rather than to take immediate action against them.
One type of narrative illustrates how a cluster of motifs got attached to him. We are told that he visited a blacksmith one night and asked for his horse to be shod. He wrenched off one of the hor se’s legs and gave it to the blacksmith to have the shoe put on it. The terrified smith complied, and then Donn replaced the leg on the horse perfectly, saying that he was to lead his cavalry that night in a battle against a rival host. The unorthodox method of shoeing the horse is borrowed from a farflung folklore plot (see Religious Tales. Type 753), but the general situation described is of spe cial interest. That situation corresponds to a legend found in a mediaeval Norse text concerning the Norse god Odin, who similarly appeared to a blacksmith to have his steed Sleipnir shod before a great battle far away. It seems likely, therefore, that this account of Donn is indebted to a residue of lore from the Norse settlements of mediaeval Limerick.
Other items of lore concerning Donn can also be related to Odin. Like the Norse deity, he some times rode his horse through the sky, and he was regarded as a great personification of the weather. Thunder and lightning meant that he was travell ing wildly in the sky, and if clouds were over the hill of Knockfiema that was taken to mean that he was gathering them together and would soon release them in the form of rain. The portrayal of Donn as a phantom rider led to a connection being drawn between him and another ghostly figure of Limerick lore, the Earl of Desmond (see Gearoid Iarla FitzGerald), and as a result of this the image of a wizard was borrowed from that Earl to Donn. Thus one folk narrative has a man being brought into a fine palace in Knockfiema and finding there Donn as an old man clothed in white and instructing a large number of young students in ‘the mysteries of the creation since the stars began to shine'.
In Co Clare he was known as ‘Donn na Duimhche’ (‘Donn of the Dune’) and was also often encountered as a nighthorseman. and one legend developes the motif of his fairy army. We are told that a hostile fairy host was driving away all the cattle from a local farmer when Donn and his army intercepted them and. in a bitter other world battle, rescued the herd. This Clare tradition of Donn stretches back for a considerable time. It was wellknown to the poet Aindrias Mac Cruitin who. around the year 1740. alluded to Donn na Duimhche in one of his works. Complaining of his miserable circumstances and of the niggardly treatment he had received from the gentry of the area, the poet begged Donn to open his door to him and receive him into his palace ‘under the waves’. The maritime aspect of this lore of Donn in west Clare is a close parallel of the tradition of Bull Rock (‘Teach Duinn’). The mediaeval pseudo historians described several people as being drow ned at the sanddunes (‘dumhcha’) at Teach Duinn, and the literature also referred to this great personage of the southwest Kerry coast as Donn
Dumhach or Donn Dumhaighe (i. e. of the dunes’). The shore off Doonbeg in Co Clare was very dangerous for boats, and it was therefore easy to make the mistake of identifying the Kerry dunes with the larger ones on the Clare coast. The iden tification was probably first made by some scholar in postmediaeval times, and as a result the lore of Donn became associated with the latter area.
In his poem, Aindrias Mac Cruitin made an offer to Donn to ‘groom the steeds of your phan tom cavalry’. It is apparent from this that the poet knew of the fairyhorseman image, this having been borrowed into the Clare lore from that of Donn Firinne at some time previous to the 18th century. The origin of this earlier Donn Firinne of Limerick is more complicated. His epithet is a cor ruption of Frigrinn, which was an ancient name for the locality, the hill being originally called Cnoc Frigrinne. The likelihood is that this tradi tion grew out of some rhetoric or text which situated Donn at various hillcaims regarded as otherworld dwellings. As a result of the corruption to ‘Firinne’ (literally, ‘truth’), and of Donn’s associations with the elements, the people of Co Limerick claimed that the hill was so called because its aspect enabled ‘truthful predictions to be made about the weather’. The connection with Odin and the variety of the fairy legends attached to Donn Firinne would suggest that his lore was well established in Limerick by the late Middle Ages.
Julius Pokomy (1959) 1, 271; Kate MiillerLisowski in Bealoideas 18, 14299; T F O'Rahilly (1946). 4814 and in Hermathena 23, 2034 and in The Irish Mon thly 53, 25763; Liam O Luaighnigh (1935), 79; Risteard 0 Foghludha (1952). 2113; Daithi O hOgain (1985), 1524, 2346. 337.
[Plutarch references] Moralia: 419, 941; A C L Brown (1943), 33941.
[Odin material] Gudhni Jonsson (1957), 3902; CM Edsman (1949). 1179.