EUGENE DALY continues his series on various aspects of Irish folklore and customs


Although, like its larger cousin the rat, the mouse is widely disliked as a pest, it is also regarded with a degree of affection as a charming and relatively harmless creature.
There are two species of mice in Ireland, the wood mouse which is sometimes called the field mouse and the house mouse (Mus Musculus). As their names suggest, the wood mouse lives in woods and open countryside while the house mouse lives mostly in and around buildings. The wood mouse has been in Ireland for about 8000 years. The house mouse originated in Central Asia and spread to Europe about 4,000 years ago. Like the wood mouse, it probably began life as a seed eater, but started to exploit the rich opportunities for food and shelter provided by human settlements.

Mice were considered a major pest in early Ireland. In the old Irish Brehon Laws, the mouse was considered a significant destroyer of food, usually stored in the barn, mill or drying kiln. Today both kinds of mice can be pests where-ever foodstuffs such as grain, animal feed, hay or straw are stored. The house mouse is now an omnivore which will eat anything that is digestible, including soap and even electrical insulations. In addition the house mouse carries Weil’s disease which is a serious health hazard.

On the positive side, mice form a significant part of the diet of many of our native mammals and birds, including kestrels, owls, foxes, stoats, badgers and domestic cats. As well as being a pest, therefore, they make a significant and valuable contribution to our native fauna.

There are many legends concerning mice in Irish folklore. One legend states that mice first came into existence thanks to a miracle of St. Martin. Martin placed some food under a tub and warned his companions to leave it there until the following day. However, an inquisitive monk could not resist lifting the tub to have a look underneath, whereupon a plague of mice rushed out. Martin threw his glove after the mice in order to control them and the glove turned into the finest cat.

A similar tale was widely told in Ireland about St. Colmcille. In this version, mice first came into existence as an indirect result of Colmcille wishing to feed the poor. Jesus granted the saint his wish by giving him some cooking fat and instructing him to put it in a pot for twenty-four hours. At the end of this period, something wonderful would appear to feed the poor. Colmcille carried out these instructions, but his serving girl stole a small piece for herself and put it in a bowl. When the twenty-four hours were up a herd of succulent young pigs appeared out of the pot. All that came out of the bowl, however, were mice. Because of its origin in theft, it was said that from then on the mouse would only get what it can steal.

The mouse appears in a charming legend regarding St. Colmán Mac Duach, a bishop in Connacht. According to this tale the saint had three pets, a fly, a cockerel and a mouse. The cock used to crow at midnight to call him to prayer, the fly used to walk along the page of his Psalter to mark it for Colmán while he chanted the psalms, and the mouse used to nibble his ear to waken him if he started to doze off.

Superstitions about mice are found in many European countries. Mice were widely thought to be manifestations of the soul in Germany and other parts of Europe, and a common belief was that the soul of a sleeping person could leave its body and wander far and wide in the form of a mouse, especially a white one. Among Manx fishermen it was considered unlucky to say the word ‘mouse’ while at sea. Interestingly, among Irish fishermen certain words were also taboo, words life ‘fox’, ‘priest’ etc.

The mouse appears in an old Irish proverb for something impossible. An rud nach bhfuil is nach mbeidh, nead ag an luch i bhéasóg an chait–Something that isn’t and will never be, the nest of a mouse in a cat’s whiskers.
The pigmy shrew, known in Irish as an Luch Féir (grass mouse), is often mistaken for a mouse. However, it is not a rodent but an insectivore or insect eater. It is Ireland’s smallest mammal, even smaller than a mouse. It is noted for its energetic pursuit of food and its high-pitched squeaking as it hurries along. It has a very short life and has to eat almost its own weight in food every day to survive.
The Scottish poet, Robert Burns wrote a famous poem about a mouse after he had destroyed its nest, leaving it and its family without shelter.

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal! ÷