Two hands clasping a crowned heart – this simple but unique motif that is so rich in romantic symbolism has made the Claddagh Ring an instantly recognizable icon of Irish culture. The ring has been popular among Irish people and the Irish diaspora as a wedding and friendship ring, often passed through generations. The symbolic meaning is nicely summed up on the plaque outside of Thomas Dillon Jewellers:
“The Hand is for Friendship,
the Heart is for Love,
and Loyalty is Shown,
With the Crown up Above.”
The triad has also been interpreted as a representation of the Celtic Gods embracing the heart of all mankind, or (just like St. Patrick’s shamrock) as the Holy Trinity. The tradition of how the ring is worn brings yet more symbolic meaning to it. A person who wears the ring with the heart point outward (toward the fingernail) is said to be unattached or open to love. An inward pointing ring announces to the world that your heart is taken – that you are in love or married.
The history of the Claddagh Ring is steeped in myth and has sprouted a fascinating local folklore. Two stories link the origin of the ring to the Joyce family, prominent among the ‘Tribes’ of Galway City. The first is the fanciful tale of Margaret Joyce. When her wealthy Spanish husband, Domingo de Rona, died Margaret inherited his fortune. She was re-married to Oliver Óg Ffrench, Mayor of Galway, 1596 and used her considerable inheritance to build bridges around the Connaught area. She was providentially rewarded for her charity when an eagle flying over head dropped a gold ring into her lap. It was the first Claddagh Ring!
The traditional (and more credible!) story of the ring’s creation is the swashbuckling tale of Richard Joyce. In the latter half of the 1600s Joyce set sail from Galway to seek his fortune in the New World. En route Algerian pirates intercepted the ship and Joyce was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith in Tangier. Seeing potential in the young Irishman the Turk instructed him in the trade. In 1689 William II of England sent an ambassador to Algeria to demand the release of all British subjects held in slavery. Recognizing Joyce’s exceptional skill and craftsmanship his former master offered half of his wealth and his only daughter’s hand in marriage to entice him to stay, but after 14 years in slavery he resolutely declined.
He returned to Galway with the ring he had fashioned in captivity – the first Claddagh Ring. This he bequeathed to his sweetheart when they were married and Richard became a goldsmith of ‘considerable success’. His mark, RI and an anchor symbolizing hope, is still visible on some of the earliest extant Claddagh Rings.
The ring has long been associated with the Claddagh area. Now a suburb of Galway
City, the Claddagh was once a fiercely independent fishing village separated from the Anglo-Norman city by the medieval walls and the River Corrib. They had their own customs and even their own king, distinguished by the white sail hoisted above his fishing hooker. The metal alloy rings worn by Claddagh women were probably cheaper imitations of designs created by goldsmiths in Galway City and beyond. In fact, the Claddagh Ring belongs to a family of rings known as fede or ‘faith’ rings that were popular in medieval times and can be traced back as far as Roman times. The clasped hands motif of the fede ring was embellished by Irish jewellers to include a heart (long considered by lovers as the seat of affection) and a crown denoting perfection.
The Ring in Popular Culture
With the exodus of Irish people during the Great Famine the ring spread across the globe where it often became a cherished family heirloom and an important symbol of Irish identity. It grew in popularity throughout the 19th century especially as it was the only Irish ring worn by Queen Victoria and later Queen Alexandria and King Edward VII.
The Claddagh Ring counts among its fans an impressive list of celebrities and historical figures. After completing the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919 Captain Sir John Alcock was presented with a Claddagh Ring at a civil ceremony in Galway City. He was so pleased with the gift that he told a reporter for the Connaught Tribune “I shall keep it and always wear it as a lucky charm.”
Millions of visitors pass the statue of Walt Disney at the entrance to Walt Disney
World Restort annually, but few notice the Claddagh Ring faithfully cast on his finger. On a visit to his ancestral home in 1948 he and his wife exchanged Claddagh Rings which they reportedly wore every day. President John F Kennedy was often photographed wearing the ring presented to him on his historic trip to Galway in 1963 and Ronald Reagan was also honoured with a ring when he was in Galway for its quincentennial.
No visit to Galway is complete without a visit to Thomas Dillon Jewellers. It is the oldest jewellers in Ireland and one of the earliest makers of the Claddagh Ring. The charming premises at 1 Quay St is home to a delightful (and free) museum billed as “Europe’s smallest museum with the biggest gift shop.”