The Claddagh is one of Ireland’s most recognized and precious images. Two hands embracing a heart adorned with a crown symbolize the purity of a cherished relationship – friendship (cairdeas), love (grá) and loyalty (dílseacht). Here we explore the origins of the design and how it is still honored more than 300 years after its creation.
Between the River Corrib & Galway Bay
When we hear “Claddagh”, we think ring. But Claddagh is actually a place in County Galway where a fisherman-turned-goldsmith transformed his undying commitment to the woman he loved into the renowned band of gold. (Or so the story goes…)
In an area once known as the Fish Market, Claddagh is one of Ireland’s oldest former fishing communities, named after the Irish word for “shore” – an Cladach. It is located in Galway city, just across the River Corrib from the Spanish and Caoċ Arches, the remaining structure of a protective wall constructed in 1584. Very little of the original village is present today due to a shift in the industry, emigration, disease and war but the history and lore of the area remains.
Galway is proud of their connection to such a legendary Irish symbol. The Claddagh Ring Visitor Centre shows a filmed dramatization titled “Legend of the Claddagh Ring” and you can also watch a crafting of the authentic piece of jewelry in their workshop. Galway is being recognized as a 2020 European Capital of Culture, a EU initiative that highlights the cultural diversity in Europe. This yearlong celebration of Galway will feature all that Galway has to offer and that will surely include the Claddagh!
Hands, Heart & Crown
There are many legends surrounding the original design of the Claddagh ring and most point toward Galway fisherman Richard Joyce. In the late 17th century, Joyce was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. While in servitude, he forged a ring of gold for his true love back in Galway featuring three symbols: a heart of love, a crown of loyalty and hands of friendship. After his release back to his village of Claddagh, he married the woman who had waited years for him to return.
The Claddagh ring wasn’t the first design of its kind. Fede rings feature some variation of clasped hands dating back to at least Roman times. (Mani in fede is Italian for “hands clasped in faith”.)
Claddagh rings have been produced in Galway since the early 18th century but the geographic name came much later when the design was being worn outside of Galway in different areas of Ireland and Britain.
The Fenian Claddagh ring features hands holding a heart but lacks a crown. The word “Fenian” is derived from the Fianna, a band of warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill in Irish mythology. In the mid-19th century, the Irish patriotic movement adopted Fenian as an adjective to describe the fight for independence from British rule; hence, a Fenian Claddagh has no crown.
How to Wear a Claddagh Ring
A Claddagh ring was traditionally passed from a mother to her daughter and then continued that pattern through generations. Often a family heirloom, the symbol of love, loyalty and friendship is also commonly exchanged between friends.
Most popular is the wearing of a Claddagh ring as a symbol of romance. (Google “Claddagh wedding ring” and you get nearly 4 million results!) Who wears the ring is as important to some as HOW the ring is worn. The placement tells a lot about the wearer according to these relatively modern interpretations:
If you wear it on your right hand with the heart facing out, your heart is open. You are single and may (or may not) be looking for a relationship.
If you wear it on your right hand with the heart facing in, your heart is not available. You are in a relationship…or maybe you just aren’t looking for one.
If you wear it on your left hand with the heart facing in, your heart belongs to another – your spouse. You are married.
If you wear it on your left hand with the heart facing out, some say this means you’re engaged. This is the least popular of the interpretations but either way, you’re officially off the market.
Regardless of whether or not you’re looking for love, one thing is certain – never buy your own Claddagh ring. It must be gifted or received. The fairies tell us it’s bad luck. But what do the Irish know about luck anyway?
More Than Just a Ring
Ireland is recognized by its symbols – the harp, the shamrock, the Claddagh – just as it is recognized by its music. Many musicians use the Galway name (including The Claddagh, a traditional Irish group….in Northern Italy!) but the best-known musical connection to an Cladach is Claddagh Records. Once the revered publisher of the best traditional Irish artists (they produced The Chieftain’s first album), the Temple Bar shop and mail order service are the premier source for traditional Irish music.
Restaurants and record labels aside, nothing is more permanent that body art. The Claddagh is incorporated into Irish and Celtic tattoo designs worldwide proving that love, loyalty and friendship really are forever.
Go raibh maith agat to @jrubytattooer for photo permission.
The Claddagh is a perfect reminder of the breadth of our admiration of Ireland - the history of its village, the legend of its goldsmith, the allure of the name itself. But it is the emotional perfection of the Claddagh symbol that has earned our endearment and inspired us to immortalize it in jewelry, art and so much more.
All you need is love…loyalty and friendship.