The Curious Tale of the Mouse, the Skull and the Saint’s Curse

Clonmacnoise today (source)

In 1070 AD[i] the forces of Turlough O’Brien (Toirdhealbhach Ua Briain), king of Munster, raided the great monastery at Clonmacnoise in Co. Offaly[ii].  The target of their attack, however, was not the monastery’s riches of gold and silver, but instead something far more macabre. On arrival, Turlough’s men forced their way into the great church and proceeded to search it. Finally, they discovered what they wanted, the skull of Conor McLaughlin (Conchobar ua Mael Sechlainn), the recently slain king of Meath, which laid buried within. Why the Munster king wanted this gruesome trophy remains uncertain, but stealing it would certainly have enraged his enemies from Meath.


According to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, Turlough would pay dearly for this disrespectful  act[iii]. When the stolen head was presented to the Munster king, something very unusual happened. A mouse, which had apparently been hiding inside the skull, jumped out and ran under the king’s cloak. Immediately Turlough was afflicted by a ‘sore disease’[iv] and as his condition worsened his hair began to fall out.  The author of the Annals was in no doubt as to why this occurred. It was clearly the work of St. Ciarán, the Patron Saint of Clonmacnoise and a fitting punishment for Turlough’s sacrilegious actions.

Seeing the error of his ways and fearful for his life the Munster king quickly sent the stolen skull back to Clonmacnoise along with ‘certain gold’[v]. This appears to have appeased the disgruntled saint and the Munster king’s health soon recovered. The moral of the story? Don’t mess with Saint Ciarán!

[i] This date may be out by three years as the Annals of Ulster record that Conor McLaughlin was killed in 1073 AD

[ii] Murphy, D. (ed.) 1896 The Annals of Clonmacnoise, being annals of Ireland from the earliest period to A.D. 1408, Uiversity Press, Dublin

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

7 thoughts on “The Curious Tale of the Mouse, the Skull and the Saint’s Curse

  1. Great story! However, could you please reverse the way you write the names? Conchobar ua Mael Sechlainn (Conor McLaughlin), Toirdhealbhach Ua Briain (Turlough O’Brien), or best of all, just leave them in their correct form? After all, a turlough is a seasonal lake, not a person’s name.

    1. Hi Adrian, thanks for the comment. I used the modern spellings of the names for ease of reading as not everyone is familiar with how Middle Irish words are spelled and pronounced. As for Turlough, I’m a bit puzzled, as its quite a common Irish first name. There are going to be some disgruntled Irish men out there when you tell them their names not real :). All the best, Colm

      1. Fascinating story. I love those crazy stories in the annals!
        By the way, regarding Adrien’s comment, I really appreciate any and all help you give with names and pronunciation. I love reading translations of the annals, but often have such trouble making sense of the names and places that it all begins to slip away. Try as I may to apply myself to learning Gaelic, it doesn’t stick, and it really frustrates me that I am so thick.

        I’ve done a lot of reading in the history of languages and I know that Gaelic is from the same family as English, Latin etc, but it sure is mystery to me how the Celts got such complicated spelling!

  2. Fantastic story – I just came across this blog. I’ve been looking at the Justinian plague in Ireland and Britain and around the world, and one of the questions historians have is whether people in general connected rats/mice with the plague – and there are quite a few scraps to say they did, although they didn’t quite understand why.
    So this story is just a great snippet. A mouse that causes ‘sores’ (the plague caused massive swelling and rupture of the lymph nodes, the ‘buboes’) and if people lived long enough their hair fell out. And it goes naturally with the plague and St Ciaran too.

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