The Story of the Claddagh Ring
Irish Claddagh Rings are probably the most culturally rich pieces of jewelry ever recorded in history. The design of the Claddagh ring and even the way the ring is worn are all deeply rooted in Irish tradition. It was probably one of the first pieces of real jewelry I owned and was ever so proud of. As a young girl it felt so grown up to wear one as you felt everyone would look to see which way it was pointing!! Older aunts would look and say ooh so you have noooo boy friend or oooh so you have a boyfriend!! It was a little too telling at times!! I know I never realised it had such an ancient history. There are a few legends, some more believable than others, that crop up around the Claddagh ring but there are two main ones. But first we can start with some facts about the area where The Claddagh ring got its name.
Simple silver Claddagh ring like the one I first wore
Claddagh Fishing Village
The Claddagh is actually the name of a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland In county Galway. This is where the tradition of the Claddagh rings first started. The word Claddagh itself comes from the Irish language 'An Cladach' and means a 'flat stony shore'. This was a pretty and ancient village with winding streets and small thatched roofed mud houses. There is very little sign of the old village now as the city of Galway has expanded and swallowed it up. There is nothing left today of the thatched cottages where the fishermen and their families lived but Claddagh is still a clearly defined area around the Dominican Church of St Mary on the Hill and just over the Wolftone bridge at the mouth of the Claddagh Quay there are a handful of houses bearing the Claddagh insignia. Property in the area is in high demand as the location is both close to the now thriving city of Galway and is close to the sea with beautiful views over Galway bay.
The Claddagh ring is a traditional piece of Celtic jewelry given in friendship or worn as a wedding ring. The design and customs associated with it originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside the old walls of the city of Galway.
The history of the Claddagh ring dates back over 300 years. The ring was first produced in the 17th century during the reign of Queen Mary II, though elements of the design are much older, as The Claddagh ring is actually variant of an older design called "Fede" rings which date to Roman times. Fede rings comprise of two hands clasping or Hands together in Faith, or "Mani in fede" The Claddagh ring expanded the design to have the hands clasping a heart topped with a crown.
Claddagh Ring with Marquisite
The Claddagh district as it is today
The legends of the Claddagh Ring (no 1)
The most popular story, and arguably the most persuasive concerns a fisherman by the name of Richard Joyce. Joyce was a native of Galway. He left his town to work in the West Indies, intending to marry his love when he returned. However, his ship was captured and he was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith. In Algiers, with his new master, he was trained in his craft. When William III became king in 1689, he demanded the Moors release all British prisoners held in slavery. As a result, Richard Joyce was set free. The goldsmith had grown fond of Richard Joyce and had a great respect for his abilities as a goldsmith so he offered Joyce his daughters hand in marriage and half his wealth if Joyce agreed to stay in Algiers. Joyce declined his offer and returned home to marry his love who was waiting for him. During his time with the Moors, he forged the first Claddagh ring as a symbol of his love for her. Upon his return, he presented her with the ring and they were married.
Several examples of Joyce's works are still in existence. He flourished as a craftsman in gold and silver in Galway up to about 1730. Some of his Claddagh Rings and Silver Chalices still survive in Museums and collections throughout Ireland.
The legend of the Claddagh ring (no 2)
The second Joyce theory
A Galway woman named Margaret Joyce Married a rich spanish merchant named Domingo de Rona. When he died she inherited his fortune. She later married the Mayor of Galway in 1596 (Oliver Og French)and used her inherited wealth to construct many bridges in Connacht. Legend has it that as she was overseeing the construction of one of these bridges one day an Eagle flew over and dropped a ring into her lap, and the ring was the first Claddagh Ring.
White Gold Claddagh Wedding Ring
But why was it called The Claddagh Ring
W. Dillon in his publication on "The Claddagh Ring" in the Galway Archaeological Society Journal, Vol. IV, 1905-6, defines the limits over which the ring is worn as roughly from the Aran Islands on the West, and through all Connemara and Joyce Country to Galway, and then eastward and southward for not more than 12 miles at most. The whole district is the one served by fisherfolk of the Claddagh village just outside the city of Galway, but became known as the Claddagh ring probably because of the proximity to the city of the large Claddagh fishing community using the ring alone.
18 carat gold Claddagh Wedding ring
Silver Claddagh ring with amythyst colour heart
Gold Claddagh pendant with diamond detail
Support for the Richard Joyes Legend
The following account is given in James Hardiman's History of Galway (printed in 1820)which is considered to the definitive history of Galway city and county from the earliest of times until the early 19th century.
The book is now out of copyright and is available on the web. Free to download.
Several individuals of this name have long felt grateful to the memory of William III from the following circumstance, on the accession of that monarch to the throne of England. One of the first acts of his reign was to send an ambassador to Algiers to demand the immediate release of all the British subjects detained there in slavery. The dey and council, intimidated, reluctantly complied with this demand. Among those released was a young man of the name of Joyes, a native of Galway, who fourteen years before was captured on his passage to the West Indies by an Algerian Corsair; on his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk who followed the profession of a goldsmith. Observing his slave Joyes to be tractable and ingenious he instructed him in his trade in which he speedily became an adept. The Moor, as soon as he heard of his release, offered him, in case he should remain, his only daughter in marriage and with her half his property. All these, with other tempting and advantageous proposals, Joyes resolutely declined; on his return to Galway he married and followed the business of a goldsmith with considerable success
The book this excerpt s from has some really interestng stuff in it. including Maps and Family sheilds dating back to the 1800,s i tried to copy some over but failed.
Silver Claddagh pendant in a heart shape with Green Stone
The meaning of the Claddagh design
What does the Claddagh design Signify?
The Claddagh's distinctive design features two hands clasping a heart, surmounted by a crown. Each of these three elements carries its own distinct symbolism
The Hands represent friendship
The Heart represents love
The Crown represents loyalty
The expression which was associated with these symbols in the giving of the ring was: "Let love and friendship reign."
14 Carat Wedding Ring with White Gold Claddagh inset
How to wear a Claddagh Ring
But the meaning and significance of the Claddagh ring is not just in the crown, heart and clasping hands, it also extends to the hand on which the ring is worn and the direction in which the Heart on the ring points.
How to wear a Claddagh Ring
The way that a Claddagh ring is worn on the hand is usually intended to indicate the wearer's romantic availability, or lack thereof. Traditionally, if the ring is on the right hand with the heart facing outward and away from the body, this indicates that the person wearing the ring is, single and looking for a relationship. When the ring is worn on the right hand but with the heart facing inward toward the body, this indicates the person wearing the ring is in a relationship, or that "someone has captured their heart". When the ring is on the left hand ring finger with the heart facing toward the body, it means that the person wearing the ring is married.
Silver Claddagh Bangle with Green heart
How to Wear a Claddagh Ring
Variations in Claddagh jewelry
A "Fenian" Claddagh, without the crown, was later designed in Dublin for the Irish Republican community, but that is not an indication that the crown in the original design was intended as a symbol of fidelity to the British crown. The Fenian Claddagh, while still being made, has not approached the popularity of the ancient design. In fact I have never even seen one!
Gold Claddagh Brooch
Famous wearers of the Claddagh Ring
W. Dillon in his publication on "The Claddagh Ring" in the Galway Archaeological Society Journal, Vol. IV, 1905-6, tells us that the Claddagh ring was the only ring ever made in Ireland worn by Queen Victoria and later by Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII. Their rings were made by Dillons of Galway, established in 1750, to whom the Royal Patent was granted and the tradition has been carried on at Dillons to this day.
Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco in 1962 were presented with gifts embodying the Claddagh ring motif set in Connemara marble.
In 1984 when Galway celebrated its Quincentennial as a Mayoral City, the people of Galway presented a specially commissioned 18 carat gold Claddagh ring to President Ronald Reagan.
How the popularity of the ring became so widespread
The Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) caused many to emigrate from Ireland, and the Claddagh ring spread along with the emigrants to the United States and elsewhere. Now the design is worn worldwide. These rings are often considered heirlooms, and passed on from mother to daughter as well as between friends and lovers.
The design has also been modified and modernised in many ways and worn as Claddagh Bracelets, Claddagh pendants, Claddagh earrings and Claddagh Brooches and my own Favourite recent find a Claddagh topped silver Christening spoon also incorporating a Trinity Knot. What a lovely message to include in a Christening Gift "Let love and friendship reign."