Steeped in history and rich with meaning, the Irish Claddagh symbol has retained its popularity for over 300 years. Those of Irish descent, and, in fact, even those with no Irish ties, are captivated by the design, its meaning, and the heartwarming legends that surround its inception. Indeed, the Claddagh is probably the most easily recognized Irish symbol, and Claddagh rings are worn worldwide, both as cultural symbols and as wedding bands.
The Claddagh is a distinctive design that incorporates a pair of hands clasping a crown-surmounted heart. The hands are said to represent friendship, and the heart, love, while the crown invokes loyalty. Traditionally, the expression associated with the giving of a Claddagh ring is “With these two hands, I give you my heart, and crown it with my loyalty.” The alternative, “Let love and friendship reign forever,” also captures the full meaning of the design. Since Claddagh rings are often exchanged at handfastings and weddings, these phrases resonate deeply with the meaning of the ring.
Peter Stone has an extensive collection of finely-crafted, beautifully designed Claddagh rings and wedding bands, as well as Claddagh-themed pendants and other jewelry. Peter Stone also frequently combines the Claddagh with other Irish and Celtic symbols to create jewelry that virtually glows with cultural pride. Here, Peter Stone shares some of the meaning and history behind this beautiful motif.
What’s in a Name?
Claddagh is the name of a fishing community on the outskirts of the Irish city of Galway. The original Irish name, “Cladach,” means “stony beach,” and references this area, where the first Claddagh ring design was believed to originate.
The history surrounding the first Claddagh ring is buried beneath conflicting legends. One story claims that Margaret Joyce, upon marriage to the mayor of Galway, used the money she inherited from her late husband’s estate to build bridges in the area. The first Claddagh ring was dropped into her lap by an eagle, as a providential reward for her charity.
Another myth involves a prince and a maid. Though the prince claimed to love the beautiful commoner, her father feared he would merely use the girl and cast her aside. To prove his love, the prince designed the first Claddagh, and after hearing the meaning of the symbols he believed in the prince’s sincerity and relented, allowing them to marry.
The most widely accepted explanation hinges on a man from Galway named Richard Joyce. Long ago, he sailed from Galway on a ship bound for the West Indies, but pirates captured the ship and sold the passengers into slavery. Joyce was forced to work in a Moorish goldsmith’s shop, where he grieved the loss of his true love, a woman back in Galway named Margaret. Years of enforced apprenticeship went by, and as he gained skill as a smith, he designed the Claddagh as a symbol of his undying love for the woman who owned his heart. When King William III ordered the release of all slaves, Joyce was finally freed from his obligation, but his master admired his craftsmanship and begged him to stay, even offering his own daughter as a bride. Joyce, however, was insistent. His triumphant return to Galway was sweetened by finding that Margaret had waited for him. His loyalty was rewarded, they were married, and the star-crossed lovers spent their lives together. Margaret never took off her Claddagh ring, and wore it faithfully until her death.
The Claddagh ring can have additional meanings, depending on how you choose to wear it. Some believe that a Claddagh ring worn on the right hand, with the crown facing away from you displays your interest in looking for companionship. It will convey your availability and interest in finding a special someone. If worn on the left hand, with the crown facing towards you, the Claddagh ring shows the world that you are in a permanent relationship and are loyal to that commitment.
Claddagh rings spread to America with the emigration of the Irish during the Great Potato Famine, and have since become a world-wide phenomenon. The design is aesthetically pleasing, and the symbolism is universal whether one chooses to believe the legends or not, which makes the Claddagh design a perfect candidate for universal distribution. Though the motif lends itself well to the ring, the Claddagh can be found on T-shirts, candles, artwork, and key chains in every country, and the meaning of the hands, heart, and crown can invoke powerful emotions for anyone.
The use of the ring as a medium for the design is still very much alive, however. Claddagh rings are highly valued as family heirlooms in today’s culture, often being passed down from mother to daughter, and used as wedding bands in both traditional weddings and handfastings. The Claddagh also serves well as a Promise ring, a movement that is gaining popularity with modern youth who wish to make a commitment, but are choosing to wait a while before marrying.
See Peter Stone’s Claddagh rings.