Romantic jewellery takes many forms in different cultures around the world. An Irish example of romantic jewellery comes in the form of claddagh rings. These rings typically follow a uniform design wherein a central crowned heart is bordered to either side by two extended hands. When did this ring design come to be? And what does it symbolise?
The History of Claddagh Rings
The name ‘claddagh’ is taken from an Irish fishing village of the same name, close to Galway Bay. This name was not applied to describe these rings until the early 1800s, however, and there is evidence that the rings were manufactured for more than a century before this. Of all types of Celtic jewellery, the claddagh ring is among the most popular designs.
It is difficult to establish a single origin point for claddagh rings, as their history is shrouded in a variety of Celtic myths and legends. Among the oldest surviving examples of claddagh rings, Bartholomew Fallon’s maker’s mark is commonly found. It is impossible to decipher whether or not Fallon was the inventor of the design, but he is known to have made claddagh rings until at least the start of the 18th century.
Another well-established legend surrounding claddagh rings is that of Richard Joyce. Joyce was a widely-known silversmith from Galway who, in the late 17th century, was supposedly enslaved by Algerian Corsairs and sold into slavery to apprentice for a Moorish goldsmith, where he learned the craft needed to create the claddagh ring.
After an ambassador was sent to secure the freedom of British citizens – which at this time would have included Irish citizens – Joyce was able to return to Galway. Joyce presented the ring to the woman he loved and they married; he continued to craft claddagh rings and many of the oldest examples bear his mark.
Whether it was through the work of Bartholomew Fallon, Richard Joyce, or Thomas Meade – another goldsmith whose name can be found on many of the oldest claddagh rings – the claddagh design spread across Ireland, slowly spreading to Britain during the early Victorian period. The name ‘claddagh’ ring became popular at this time; an easy way to distinguish it among any other Celtic designs.
Claddagh Ring Meaning
As can be expected for rings with such striking visual imagery, a range of meanings has been applied to the claddagh ring. The ring has a history of being used as a type of Celtic engagement ring, and so the majority of the semantics associated with claddagh rings revolve around love and romance.
The heart at the centre is a symbol of love, while the two hands represent the two members of the relationship, as well as the bond of friendship and love that they share, while the crown is a symbol of loyalty. All in all, the imagery of the claddagh ring creates a highly romantic image of commitment, fidelity, and true love shared between two souls.
The most common usage of claddagh rings is, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a Celtic engagement ring. There are variations on the design which are intended to carry different meanings, such as a version without a crown meant to indicate a more platonic bond, but these variants never acquired the same level of popularity as the original design.
Claddagh Rings Today
Today, claddagh rings are still popular choices for engagement rings. The rings are predominantly used in Ireland, but they have a widespread popularity which evolved from the Victorian era and continues to thrive. In America in particular, those with established Irish ancestry in particular are eager to celebrate some of their cultural history by choosing to wear a claddagh ring, either as an engagement ring or simply as a sentimental piece of jewellery.
How to Wear the Claddagh Ring
There is a supposed code to wearing the claddagh ring in order to indicate your relationship status, according to Colin Murphy, Irish writer. Wearing the claddagh ring on the left hand with the point of the heart facing inwards indicates marriage, while the heart pointing out suggests that the wearer is engaged. When wearing the claddagh ring on the right hand, the heart pointing in is suggestive of the wearer being in a relationship, and the heart pointing out indicating singleness. It’s no wonder that heart-shaped jewellery such as the claddagh ring is enduringly popular.
These rules are not concrete, however, and most modern-day wearers of the claddagh ring are not seeking to follow these societal conventions. Wearing a claddagh ring is sometimes an indicator of Celtic or specifically Irish heritage, although it is appreciated by a lot of people from a variety of different cultures.