Learn about Donn, the Irish Lord of the Dead, in time for Halloween
Most people are aware these days that Halloween is the Christian overlay of a celebration far more ancient, a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sau-wein). It begins at sunset on October 31 and lasts until the sunset of the following day.
All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1, followed by All Souls Day on November 2. These three occasions eventually merged to become Hallowe'en as we know it today.
Halloween is thought to be when the dead and the undead, and all manner of creepy ghouls and mischievous souls walk the earth, bringing havoc and fear to the living.
The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a Lord of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.
Read more: Top gods and goddesses from Celtic myth
Who was the Irish Lord of the Dead?
Donn was the son of Milesius, also known as Mil Éspaine, and Seang. The Milesians were a race of mortal man, not supernatural beings like the Denann. There are conflicting versions of Donn's story (well, this is Irish mythology; nothing is quite what it seems) and part of its allure is that the truth of it can never be pinned down.
The invasion of the Milesians is well documented in the Lebor Gebala Erenn and the Annals of the Four Masters. Mil’s sons set sail in a fleet of sixty-five ships for Ireland. There were seven brothers: Amergin the wise poet, Ir, Heremon, Arranan, Colpa and Heber, and the whole fleet was led by Donn.
They were intent on revenge for their kinsman, Ith. He was killed by the three Denann High Kings who shared the sovereignty of Ireland, the brothers Éthur mac Cuill, Tethur mac Cecht, and Cethur mac Greine. These were the Dagda’s grandsons, the very same brothers who had previously killed Lugh Lamhfadha.
On landing, the Milesians headed for Tara, meeting the three queens, Banba, Fodhla and Ériu along the way.
Ériu foretold great success for their invasion, which pleased the poet Amergin, but Donn the leader said gruffly, “Not to her do we owe thanks, but to our Gods and our power.” Displeased at his insult, Ériu told him neither he nor his children would ever have the rule of Ireland.
The Denann could not fight so a compromise was reached
At a meeting in Tara, the Denann kings claimed they could not fight as their army was not ready, so in a strangely chivalrous gesture, Amergin offered to take his fleet out nine waves’ breadth from Irish shores; if the Denann could prevent their landing, his fleet would return home and never trouble Ireland again.
The Denann were delighted at this turn of events, confident in the magical powers of their Druids. As the Milesians duly withdrew from the coast of Ireland, the Denann Druids raised a great storm, scattering the enemy ships up and down the length of the land. Many of the ships were wrecked, killing all those on board.
Arranan was the first of the brothers to die, falling from the top of the ship's mast onto the deck below as the vessel was tossed on savage seas. Ir was washed overboard and drowned, later to be buried on Skellig Michael. Heremon managed to moor his ship in the relative safety of Inver Colpa (the mouth of the River Boyne), which he named after his brother, Colpa, who drowned as he struggled from the ship to the shore.
The biggest blow was yet to come; the loss of their eldest brother and leader, Donn. Only three of the brothers had survived; Amergin, Heremon and Eber. Despite their heavy losses, the Milesians still went on to defeat the Denann at the Battle of Tailten (Teltown, Co Meath).
After his death, Donn quickly used his power to rise to the position of Lord of the Dead
It is said that Donn met his death at Bull Rock, which lies just off the western coast of Dursey Island, Cork. It's an impressive, craggy lump of rock jutting out of the foaming ocean, which nowadays has a light-house built upon it.
As the first of the Milesians to die in this invasion of Ireland, and being of high status, Donn's position soon became elevated to Lord of the Dead. As time passed, his story was absorbed into fairy-lore, and he was thought of as a King of the Sidhe.
It was said that the Lord made his home at the place of his death, and called it Teach Duinn. People believed that on stormy nights, he rode across the sky on a white horse, and they would say, "Donn is galloping in the clouds tonight."
In later years, it was believed that after their deaths, the dead continued to walk in the land of the living as 'shades' until they heard the sound of Donn's horn at Samhain, calling them to Teach Duinn, from where they traveled west over the sea to the Otherworld.
The Christian interpretation viewed this slightly differently; that these were the souls of the damned, lingering at Bull Rock before passing on into Hell.
Other stories show Donn, the Irish Lord of the Dead to have had homes in other parts of Ireland as well
Donn was also believed to have had another home at Knockfierna, the Hill of Truth, in Co Limerick. Evidence of a large ringfort called Lios na bhFiann is found here, and a ruined dolmen is known locally as the Giant Fawhe’s Grave. There are also the remains of a cairn on the summit. A mass rock dating to the early 1700s is located at Knockfierna, and the Ballingarry Ogham Stone was discovered on the hill in 1837, showing clearly that this site was of special significance in ancient times. It is hardly surprising then, that folklore would associate such a place with an important deity or royal personage.
The story goes that Donn didn’t like mortals farming the slopes of his hill, but that being of a genial disposition he preferred to warn intruders off, rather than punish them. As with many of the other Sidhe-folk, Donn was not above kidnapping the occasional mortal should the mood take him; sometimes, one story goes, he took talented hurlers to join his team in matches against other Otherworld teams. (I love this idea that in the Otherworld, the Sidhe amuse themselves with the same games that we play.)
Donn had many names; Donn Dumhach, Donn Duach, Donn Duimche, and others. In Limerick, he was known as Donn Firineach, meaning ‘Donn the Truthful’. In Co Clare, he was associated with Crom Dubh, the Lord of the Harvest, which is another name for the idol Crom Cruach.
In "The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel," a tale from the Ulster Cycle, High King Conaire Mor is forced by circumstance to break his taboos, one by one, thus leading to his doom. As he takes refuge in Da Derga’s Hostel on Samhain night, he is set upon and murdered by three red-haired men.
Some versions of the story claim these to be the sons of Donn, Lord of the Dead; in fact, they themselves are reported to have said, “We ride the horses of Donn. Although we are alive, we are dead.” Other versions of this story claim them to be his own foster-sons, or the sons of one Dond Désa, said to be a warrior-chieftain. Although there is a similarity here in the name of Donn, his identity can’t be taken for granted.
See what I mean? The ancient Irish knew how to tell a thrilling story, and the legacy they left us is shrouded in mystery and lore!
Ali Isaac lives in beautiful rural Co Cavan in Ireland, and is the author of two books based on Irish mythology, “Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean,” and “Conor Kelly and The Fenian King.” Ali regularly posts on topics of Irish interest on her blog, www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
*Originally published in 2014