Sunday, 3 December 2017

Knockfierna, where Donn of the Dead rides out ....

In these short, dark days of the dying year the figure of Donn Fírinne haunts my imagination.

Donn, Lord of the Dead and Fairy King, rides out from his Otherworld palace beneath Knockfierna 
on his white horse, roaming the landscape of Limerick and beyond.

Knockfierna, Cnoc Fírinne, ‘Truthful Hill’ served as a local weather guide with predictions 
based on the appearance of the summit in the morning. 

In the past the Hill was known as Knock Dhoinn Ferinne, ‘mountain of Donn of Truth’.
Also called ‘The Black Hill’, it only rises to 949 feet but is visible from almost all areas of Limerick and from parts of Kerry, Cork, Tipperary and Clare.

Donn, once known locally as Donn Ainech, ‘the dark face’, had his palace, Brugh na Bruidhne, beneath the hill, entered through a deep hole in the hillside, Poll na Bruinne
There were dire consequences for anyone looking to investigate this entrance to the Otherworld.

Local stories tell of the Surveyor, Ahern, who, attempting to measure the depth of the hole, 
was pulled into it by his own plumb-line, never to be seen again. 
And there was Carroll Ó Daly who tried to “knock at the spirits’ door” by throwing a stone into 
Poll na Bruinne and had his nose broken when the stone was returned.

Untimely deaths were often attributed to Donn and to see him could portend a death or a momentous happening. 
He was also responsible for stealing children, leaving a changeling in their place. 

To others who saw his benevolence, he was as "quick to reward as to punish". 

A farmer was allowed into the palace to meet his brother and sister who had died many years previously and
 “both were restored to the farmer as a reward for his good service to Donn in preventing the dirty water from his yard over-running Donn’s palace grounds.”

The summit and remains of a cairn are now dominated by a 36ft cross erected in 1950.

Locals believed they would enter his palace after death and there are reports of several people meeting with Donn on the evening before they died.
Folklore also explains that they would be taken to the hill as they approached the end of their lives to enter the palace of Donn. 
This journey was known as the path of truth - "tá sé tá sí imithear shlí na fírinne", ‘he / she has set out on the path of truth’.

Beneath the summit of the hill lies Glownanérha, ‘the glen of broth’, which was known to be plentiful as Donn ensured that his people never hungered in the Otherworld.

View the complete painting of Donn HERE

Traditionally Donn Fírinne appears to mortals seated on a white horse and when the weather turned stormy at night locals would say "Donn is galloping in the clouds tonight”.

However, his excursions were not confined to Knockfierna. 
In Co. Clare he resided on Cnoc an tSodair, ‘Hill of the Trotting’,

as well as on the west coast, where as Donn na Duimhche, ‘Donn of the Dune’, he was seen riding a white horse across 
the sands at Dunbeg.

Looking towards Dunbeg dunes, where Donn rides with his fairy host.

Here Donn was known for his generosity; giving a gift of pipes, tobacco and matches to seaweed gatherers and a fistful of silver coins to a starving widow and her family.
The punishment for refusing his gifts was death.

As Fairy King, he was described as beautiful “like the blossom of flowers”, 
as “Lord of the grey and mossy rock, smooth hill and pleasant bower” and in the area surrounding Knockfierna it was customary to visit the hill at least once a year and place a stone upon the cairn at the summit, known as the Stricín, in honour of Donn.

At Bealtaine and Samhain offerings included eggs buried in hay and corn and parts of dead animals.
In particular a cock, ritually slaughtered, was bestowed upon Donn.

At Lughnasadh flowers and FRAOCHANS were offered.

My own pilgrimage to honour Donn took place at Bealtaine this year when Knockfierna 
was clad in gold and green. 

Unable to climb the hill my offerings were left in a field below the Stricín.

Sunset at Knockfierna - photo courtesy of Derek Ryan Bawn at The Tipperary Antiquarian

Now that winter is here I imagine the hill, silhouetted by the sinking sun,
resounding with hoofbeats as Donn Fírinne rides out.


  1. Very nice post! Could you tell me your sources? Thank you very much!

    1. Thanks Angus - I read a lot of folklore at


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