The Claddagh Ring has its roots in a type of finger ring called Fede or faith ring. Since Roman times these consisted of clasped hands and often worked as a pair of two intertwined rings with a hand on each that would slide together. Worn as a sign of devotion to a spouse or beloved, this widespread European jewellery tradition evolved a peculiar variation in the West of Ireland that has come to be known as the Claddagh Ring. The hands clasp a heart in the manner of presentation with a crown over the heart.
By tradition, a Claddagh Ring is passed from mother to her eldest daughter. The manner in which it is worn indicates the status of the wearer. On the right hand with the heart worn outwards it indicates that the wearer is single and available for courtship. Worn on the ring finger of the left hand with the heart outwards it shows that the heart is occupied, but not yet married. Worn on the left ring finger with the heart facing inwards the Claddagh Ring declares that the wearer is married. Tradition also holds that the three motifs of the ring are symbolic, the heart for love, the crown for loyalty and the hands for friendship.
There are two legends about the origin of the Claddagh ring. Both involve members of the Joyce tribe. One Margaret Joyce married a wealthy Spanish trader, Domingo de Rona. After his death she inherited his fortune and remarried Oliver Og French, the Mayor of Galway 1596-7. Margaret was renowned for her charity and for building a great number of bridges at her own expense. One day an eagle flying overhead dropped a golden ring into her bosom, set with a rare and unknown stone. This miracle was seen as a reward from Heaven for Margaret’s good works. The ring became the model for the Claddagh Ring.
The second and more widely known legend is that Richard Joyce was captured by Algerian Corsairs around 1675. Enslaved, he was purchased by a Moorish goldsmith, who trained him in the craft. In 1689 King William III sent an ambassador to Algeria to demand the release of any and all British subjects who were enslaved in that country, which at the time would have included the Irish. His forceful negotiations were successful. The master of Richard Joyce had grown very fond of him and begged that he remain with him in freedom, going so far as to offer Joyce his only daughter’s hand in marriage and half his property. Joyce refused the offer and returned to Galway, where he successfully followed the trade he had learned in his captivity. In the more romantic versions of the tale he marries the sweetheart that faithfully waited fourteen years for him. The earliest Claddagh Ring examples that can be reliably dated do, in fact, bear the mark of goldsmith Richard Joyce, who was active in Galway circa 1689-1737.
Claddagh Rings were very commonly used in the area around Galway since the late 17th century. The Claddagh is a fishing village on the outskirts of Galway City. It was a local fashion, which although it began to get wider notice in the early 20th century, was never really a part of the Celtic Revival. Towards the end of the 20th century there was an explosion of interest in the Claddagh Ring, both as jewelry and as an icon of Irishness that now adorns many other objects from pub signs to grave stones. In more recent years it has been embellished with interlace designs and combined with other Celtic and Irish symbols, but this is a very recent phenomenon that corresponds with the worldwide expansion in popularity of the Claddagh ring as an emblem of Irish identity.
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