A few weeks ago, I made the decision to bring home a Claddagh ring as my final souvenir from Ireland. I pondered long and hard about this one; which type I’d get, where I wanted to get it, for you see, the Claddagh ring is richly embedded within Irish culture. It is so well known, in fact, that when my friend Rachel and I were dancing the Irish jig with a little girl in a Dublin pub, the girl grabs Rachel’s hand, notices her ring and says, “oh, I see you’re not married.” So, I wanted to get it right.
The legend of the Claddagh ring dates back five hundred years ago in the fishing village of Claddagh, just outside of Galway city. As many men from the coast would do, the men from Claddagh would go out to sea to fish for food for their families. Back in this time, such a task posed many dangers, as the currents were strong, the weather was chancing, and the sea was bound to seduce the most deadly risk of all: pirates.
On one fateful day, a young man named Richard Joyce was fishing at sea with other members of his family. From their small boat, they spotted a Spanish pirate ship, and its crew captured Richard and his family, bringing them to the far off North Coast of Africa, and sold them into slavery.
Richard, a silversmith and the youngest of his family members, was the most devastated. All of these men had left their loved ones behind, but Richard had only just met his one true love and now feared that he would not live to see her again. Years had passed, several of these men had died, but Richard continued to yearn for his love and remained hopeful of one day returning to Claddagh. To help keep his spirits high, Richard would steal a tiny speck of gold from his slave masters each day while tending to their fire in the goldsmith shop. Throughout his years of hard labour, he slowly fashioned a ring from this gold, and it was his hope that, though his chances were slim, he would return to his village and present this ring to his fare lady.
At last, Richard finally made his way back to Claddagh. Whether he escaped or was released from slavery, no one knows for certain. Needless to say, upon his return, he was thrilled to learn that his beloved had remained faithful to him throughout these daunting and gruelling years, waiting for the day that they could be reunited. And it was on that day that Richard gave her his ring – the ring that is now know around the world as the Claddagh Ring.
The Claddagh design consists of a heart, held by two hands with a crown resting on top. The heart symbolizes the love that Richard longed to share with his one true love; the crown symbolizes their undying loyalty to one another; and the hands symbolize their friendship, which is, after all, the very foundation of all love. This design became very popular as an engagement or wedding ring, particularly in Galway, the Aran Islands, and Connemara. The Claddagh design is featured in various types of jewellery and art all across the country.
How this ring is worn also holds high significance in Irish culture. If the ring is worn on the ring finger of the right hand with the heart pointing outwards, it means that the wearer’s heart has yet to be won. If the ring is worn on the same hand, with the heart pointing inward up toward the heart, it means that their heart has been captured by another. Finally, if the ring is worn on the ring finger of the left hand with the heart pointing outward, this indicated that the wearer is engaged to be married, and if the ring is pointing inward on the same hand, it means that the wearer is married to her beloved.
When purchasing my ring, I wanted to make it as authentic of a souvenir as possible, and so I bought mine in Galway near Claddagh where the story originated. Over the years, there have been many variations and changes to the original design, but you can still purchase what is known to be the first official design of the Claddagh ring from Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold. These rings are the only Claddagh Rings in Ireland that are engraved with the “ORIGINAL” stamp from the government. The shop on Quay street in Galway also consists of a ring museum near the back of the store, and is definitely worth a visit when learning more about Claddagh rings and their role in Irish history.
Though, as I mentioned my preference for authentic artefacts, the ring I ended up calling my own is not of the original design. I instead purchased mine from the Claddagh and Celtic Jewllery Company further down on Quay street, which has a silver, Celtic knotted band, and smaller features (as seen in the cover photo). Whatever tickles your fancy, Ireland, and Galway in particular, has dozens of shops which sell the Claddagh ring, and it is through all of them that the significance of this legend is held, and the symbol of true love is shared:
“The hands are for friendship,
the heart is for love,
and loyalty is shown
with the crown up above.”
Get your very own Claddagh Ring by clicking here