The Claddagh ring is popular across the world, partly because of its appealing design and partly because of its romantic associations.
It is widely used as a wedding ring, and is also popular to mark an engagement or just a friendship.
The rings come in various shapes and designs but they all feature two hands clasping a heart which is topped by a crown. There is no reliable written source stating what the ring is supposed to symbolise but oral tradition suggests that the heart represents love, the hands mean friendship and the crown suggests loyalty.
The Claddagh is more than just a ring…it makes a statement and its meaning can change depending on how it is worn.
When the ring is worn on the right hand with the bottom of the heart pointing towards the fingertips, the wearer is not in a relationship and may be approached.
If the ring is on the right hand with the bottom of the heart pointing towards the wrist, the wearer is spoken for though not yet engaged or married.
When the ring is worn on the left hand with the bottom of heart pointing towards the fingertips, the wearer is engaged.
If the ring is on the left hand with the bottom of the heart pointing towards the wrist then the wearer is married.
The rings weren’t widely known outside Galway until the middle of the 19th century when emigration from Ireland, and the revival in Celtic culture, brought them to a wider audience. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century, however, that their popularity really took off across the world.
The Claddagh ring’s significance began to spread beyond romance and weddings and it started to become a symbol for Ireland. People across the world, especially the United States, started to use them as a way of expressing their Irish heritage. Now they’re to be found in jewelry stores everywhere, even those that don’t usually stock Irish designs.
Most Irish jewelry takes its inspiration from Celtic designs such as the Celtic cross, the Tara brooch, triquetras, triskeles etc.
By contrast, the Claddagh ring is relatively modern, dating back perhaps no more than 350 years or so. It’s known that the rings were made in the Claddagh area of Galway since the late 17th century but no one is sure who first came up with the design.
There are, of course, several theories and stories. One of the most popular stories involves a man called Richard Joyce. He was a silversmith working in Galway in the 17th century. He was betrothed to be married to his sweetheart but before he could marry, he had to make a trip to the West Indies on business.
Unfortunately, he was captured by Algerian pirates and taken to north Africa where he was sold into slavery. He worked for a goldsmith who turned him into a master craftsmen. According to the legend, his work was so good that the goldsmith took to him and offered to let him marry his daughter.
Joyce refused because he wanted to get back to his fiancé. After 14 years, he was released or managed to escape. He made his way back to Galway where his betrothed was still waiting for him. He gave her a ring he had made for her while he was enslaved. It featured a heart clasped by two hands and topped with a crown. It became her wedding ring and went on to become widely known as the Claddagh ring, after the couple’s home town in Galway.
The story, of course, cannot be verified but we do know that the very earliest surviving Claddagh rings from the early 1700s bear Richard Joyce’s initials. However, it should be pointed out that there are three other rings from about the same period featuring the insignia of another prominent Kinsale jeweller, Thomas Meade. We can’t be sure whether one was copying the other, or whether they were both drawing upon an earlier tradition of ring making in the Claddagh area.
There are other stories about the origins of the ring but they seem very much the stuff of legend. One involved a woman called Margaret Joyce, no relation to Richard as far as we know but also from the Galway area.
Margaret is said to have inherited a large fortune from her Spanish husband (there was a thriving trade between Galway and Spain at that time). She spent a large part of this fortune on public works in the west of Ireland. To reward her kindness, God sent an eagle to drop a Claddagh ring into her lap.
Another legend involved a young girl who fell in love with a Prince. The girl was only a serving maid and her father feared the Prince merely wanted to use her and then leave her. The Prince allayed his fears by making a Claddagh ring and explaining to the father how it symbolised his love, friendship and loyalty. The father then relented and allowed the marriage to go ahead.