Symbols of belonging, symbols of loyalty and allegiance and, perhaps most common of all, symbols of love. If we take a moment to look at the symbols that we wear and display every day, it becomes clear that these are the motivations that most often drive us. Sometimes, those motivations overlap in a single symbol, and that is the case with the Claddagh Ring.
For those unfamiliar with the term ‘Claddagh’, we have to venture some three centuries into the past to delve into its rather uncertain origins.
The tales that wind themselves around the origins of the Claddagh ring have at their heart, pardon the pun, the Emerald isle. Threads of the story wander about the world, sometimes to islands off the Irish coast, sometimes to Spain and, on occasion, even to Northern Africa.
But they always find their way back to Éire.
How and why is it that of all the myriad of wonderful designs that have been passed down to us over millennia, and of the countless others that are created in this modern era, the simple lines of the Claddagh still hold such strong appeal, and do so across the world?
Why is it that this symbol that originated on a tiny, green isle not so long ago in the grand scheme of things can touch at the hearts, and the minds, of people who do not trace even a fragment of their ancestry there?
Mythologian steps through the mists of time to not just answer these questions, but to share with you how the undercurrent of humanity that runs through all our veins makes itself known in mysterious ways that sometimes we do not even realize.
Table of Contents
How the Claddagh Ring Came to Be
Okay, we admit it; no one knows quite for certain. There are theories to its origins that all point to Ireland, but the chronology differs between the period around the turn of the sixteenth century and that of the seventeenth century.
The Origin of the Claddagh Name
While the design of the Claddagh ring can be traced back much further, the name first makes its appearance in recorded history in the 1830s.
It is said to refer to an Irish fishing village as the Irish phrase ‘an cladch’, which translates as ‘flat stony shore’. Apparently, the design originated in such a village and was named after it.
Who First Created the Claddagh Ring Design?
The geographical origins of the Claddagh name may be fairly uncontroversial but the manner of its first creation, and the identity of the person who conceived the idea remains uncertain.
There are three competing lines of thought, each possessing varying levels of credibility. As is the case with virtually all tales that we know from the Middle Ages, myth and lore weave themselves into historical events.
The most obvious example of this is the attribution of the Claddagh design to a bird of celestial origin. The story says that an Irish woman by the name of Margareth Joyce wedded a Spanish gentleman by the name of Domingo de Rona and left her home for his native country late in the sixteenth century.
Unfortunately, Margareth was soon widowed; however, her husband left her a fortune, with which she returned home. She found love again with the mayor of Galway, whom she wed in 1596. Using her inheritance, Margareth financed the construction of several bridges.
As reward for her charity, an eagle one day dropped the very first Claddagh ring in her lap.
The second story tells of an unnamed prince who fell in love with a common maid. The king was opposed to their marriage until the prince presented the young maiden with a Claddagh ring and explained the meaning behind each of its three elements – the heart, the hands, and the crown – to his father.
The king then acquiesced and the pair were married.
The most credible origin story is that of Richard Joyce, ironically of the same clan as the subject of the story at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Richard Joyce hailed from the town of Galway and was betrothed to a local woman. He headed to the West Indies to seek his fortunes in the plantations in about 1675, with plans to save money for his marriage. However, his ship was attacked enroute and he was captured by African pirates who sold the Irishman into slavery in Africa.
It can be said that it was Richard’s good fortune that he was bought by an African goldsmith who trained him to work with precious metals. Richard learned the craft but also sequestered tiny specks of gold from the workshop every day. The story goes that he fashioned these into the very first Claddagh ring in honor of his sweetheart.
In 1689, King William II of England demanded the return of all his subjects and Richard Joyce was set to be repatriated back to his homeland. The story says that the African goldsmith had become so attached to Richard that he offered him his daughter and half his wealth if only he would stay.
Richard refused and sailed home and presented the first Claddagh ring to his fiancé and married her. The design was noticed by others and the former slave, who had set up a goldsmith’s workshop with the skills he had picked up during his ordeal, began to manufacture them in numbers.
The Elements of the Claddagh Symbol
Beauty, thy name is simplicity.
Well, not always. The Claddagh ring is one of the most intricate of all the common symbols that represent love and faith and loyalty. It is quite unlike the most popular motifs that we use to symbolize those emotions, like the stylized heart and the Latin cross.
The Claddagh symbol is comprised of three distinct elements, each an instantly-recognizable symbol in its own right. They are:
- The heart:
- Two hands, one on either side of the heart, as if holding it; and
- The crown
Each of these three elements may be shown as simply an outline or may be embellished with intricate designs on its own. Of the three, the crown is the feature that is most open to interpretation and is often decorated with beautifying contours and lines.
Interpreting the Heart, the Hands and the Crown
No one disputes that the origins of the design have been lost with the passage of time. Neither does anyone deny the fact that we simply cannot trace the design to its first iteration in the form that we recognize it today.
As a result, our interpretations of the three elements of the Claddagh ring design are limited to a parallel understanding of similar designs gleaned from literature from a bygone era. That said, there is general consensus on the interpretations that have become so widely accepted today.
The Heart of the Claddagh Ring
The meaning of the heart element of the Claddagh design is presumably the most easy to deduce. As perhaps even a child might tell you, the heart represents love.
It takes center stage in the design and this is probably the reason why the Claddagh has been so readily embraced by couples who wish to wear a symbol of their bond to show the world.
The Hands of the Claddagh Ring
A pair of hands straddle the heart and this is generally accepted as a representation of the friendship that is the foundation of any loving relationship. It can be said that the design looks like two outstretched hands about to meet in a handshake.
The positioning of the hands on either side of the heart also alludes to how a friendship insulates a bond of love from external forces, creating a nurturing environment for the love to blossom further.
The Crown of the Claddagh Ring
Today, the crown as a symbol does not carry the weight, nor the power it would have when the Claddagh design was first conceived at the beginning of the 18th century.
At that time, monarchies were crucial to the survival of any community for the aegis of protection that they extended to the lands and people within their borders or under their command.
For that reason, the shape of the crown was seen as a symbol of loyalty; the people were loyal to the Crown in return for the security that its power commanded. It is also the reason it was placed at the top, like a benevolent hand.
In the Claddagh ring that a couple wears, the symbol of the Crown is still taken to represent loyalty. However, that interpretation of loyalty has evolved to mean the trust and devotion that is the foundation of any loving relationship.
The Heart, the Hands and the Crown Together
When they come together, the heart, the hands and the crown constitute what may be the most comprehensive representation of a couple’s love in a single motif.
Of course, the interpretation of the Claddagh ring may be extended far beyond just romantic love between two individuals; it is a valid symbol of even platonic love between any two people who embrace the elements of loyalty and friendship that are central to the design.
Irish families often pass Claddagh rings down generations as family heirlooms, and this practice is largely limited to female members of the clan. It is also not uncommon for a matching pair of Claddagh rings to be worn by mothers and daughters, or by grandmothers and granddaughters.
Claddagh Engagement Ring/Wedding Ring
Claddagh engagement rings and wedding rings are immensely popular among couples of Irish descent. However, the design has also been adopted by people from across the world with no familial links to Ireland because of the wonderful symbolism behind the heart, hands and crown.
A Claddagh ring, because of its design, has a ‘right way up’. This places the crown above and the pointed tip of the heart below.
How it is worn on a stranger’s finger can give you a clue to their relationship status.
- If it is worn on the right hand, with the crown closer to the tips of the fingers than the knuckles, the interpretation is that the wearer is single. It may also be that they are open to a relationship.
- If, however, the ring is worn on the right hand with the crown nearer to the knuckles, it may be a sign that the person is in a relationship, but is not engaged or married.
- When the Claddagh ring is worn on the left hand with the crown pointing to the tips of the fingers, it is generally meant to denote that the wearer is engaged. It will usually be worn on the left ring finger as is the custom for engagement rings.
- Married persons who wear a Claddagh ring as their wedding ring will usually wear it on the left ring finger the ‘right way up’, with the crown closer to the knuckles (and the heart).
This is a modern interpretation that is not connected in any way whatsoever with the origins of the Claddagh ring. The choice of the left hand to represent more serious relationships has its origins not in Ireland of three hundred-odd years ago but is far more ancient.
The Egyptians are credited with being the first to record a belief in the Vena Amoris, the ‘love vein’, which was supposed to run from the left ring finger directly to the heart. We now know that it was an incorrect assumption.
The link between the left side of the body and the heart perhaps originated with the ancient Egyptians but human physiology reveals that the heart seems to be angled to the left side of the body. This is because the largest of the organ’s four chambers, the left ventricle which pushes oxygenated blood to all parts of the body, has the thickest walls of muscle.
Claddagh rings, especially when they are made as a matching pair, as is the case with wedding rings and engagement rings, are often inscribed with a suitably meaningful motto or saying.
However, this practice is often extended to Claddagh rings worn as symbols of a family or to denote a bond of friendship.