In Irish mythology, Donn is a god of the dead. Donn is the modern Irish word for the colour brown and appears as an element in many Irish surnames like Donegan, Donovan, Donnelly and on its own as Dunn/Dunne. However in the case of Donn the word derives from the Celtic word ‘dhuosnos’ meaning dark – Dark Lord.
Donn is said to dwell in Tech Duinn (the ‘house of Donn” or ‘house of the dark one’). A 9th-century poem says that Donn’s dying wish was that all his descendants would gather at Tech Duinn after death: “To me, to my house, you shall all come after your deaths”. The 10th-century tale Airne Fíngein (‘Fíngen’s Vigil’) says that Tech Duinn is where the souls of all the dead gather. In the translation of Acallam na Senórach, to go to the House of Donn in Irish tradition means to die. This suggests that the pagan Gaels saw Donn as their ancestor and believed they would go to his abode when they died. Tech Duinn may have been thought of as a place where the souls of the dead gathered before travelling to their final destination in the otherworld, or before being reincarnated.
The Christian writers who put together the Lebor Gabála Érenn made Donn (also called Éber Donn) one of the Milesians, the mythical ancestors of the Gaels. The Milesians invade Ireland and take it from the Tuatha Dé Danann. During their invasion, Donn slights Ériu, one of the eponymous goddesses of Ireland, and he drowns in a shipwreck off the southwest coast. Donn is then buried on a rocky island which becomes known as Tech Duinn. In the literature, Tech Duinn is said to lie at or beyond the western edge of Ireland. Tech Duinn is commonly identified with Bull Rock, an islet off the western tip of the Beara Peninsula. Bull Rock resembles a dolmen or portal tomb as it has a natural tunnel through it, allowing the sea to pass under it as if through a portal. In Ireland there was a belief that the souls of the dead departed westwards over the sea with the setting sun.
Folklore about Donn survived into the early modern era. In Co Limerick, a Donn Fírinne was said to dwell in the hill of Cnoc Fírinne (possibly meaning ‘hill of truth’) and was associated with the weather. Thunder and lightning meant that Donn Fírinne was riding his horse through the sky, and if clouds were over the hill it meant that he was gathering them together to make rain.
Donn is also father of Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, whom he gives to Aengus Óg to be raised.
Photo: Bull Rock, Co Cork, Jean Guichard Photography