Claddagh Gifts at Totally Irish Gifts
The Claddagh (CLÁ-dá) is a well known Irish symbol, but exactly why did the Claddagh become so important to the Irish?
The word Claddagh comes from the Irish "an Cladach," which means "the shore." People often spell Claddagh incorrectly – cladagh, clladagh, cladaugh, calladagh, cladda. Claddagh is actually a fishing village in Galway where the River Corrib enters Galway Bay; back in the day, it was just outside the city walls of Galway. It is one of the oldestfishing villages in Ireland, and locals would have sold their catch at the fish market across the river at the Spanish Arch. The Claddagh village had their own king who led the fishing fleet using the Hooker boats, combatted pirates, and decided when to brave the seas. Claddagh villagers spoke Irish and lived in pretty thatched cottages. Unfortunately, most of the old village was deemed too dangerous and was pulled down in the 1930s, but the views across Galway Bay are still amazing.
The Claddagh symbol that we know now is the distinctive design of the famous Claddagh ring, which was traditionally used in the village of Claddagh as a wedding ring. In modern times, is often used internationally as a wedding ring and also as an engagement or friendship ring.
The Claddagh design is two clasped hands holding a crowned heart:
So what is the connection between the village of Claddagh and the Claddagh rings?
The story of the Claddagh Ring is surrounded by myth, but it is probable that the Claddagh design is a variation from the European "fede rings" (Italian ‘mani in fede’ = hands joined in loyalty), dating back to Roman times as a symbol of pledging vows. As European trade to Galway increased, this type of ring became known to craftspeople in the Claddagh which they fashioned to become the Claddagh Ring. It was then used as a wedding ring for centuries in the Claddagh village, and then by people in Connemara and the Aran Islands. Over time, the Claddagh ring’s popularity grew throughout Ireland. During the Victorian period, it became popular in the U.K. and eventually beyond.
However, for those who prefer myths, there are two legends surrounding the Claddagh ring.
1) It is said that Margaret Joyce, inherited quite a sum on the death of her husband – Domingo de Rona (a Spanish merchant who traded with Galway). In 1596 Margaret remarried to Oliver Og Ffrench, the major of Galway. She used her inheritance of her first marraige to build much needed bridges all over the west of Ireland. Legend has it that an eagle dropped the first Claddagh Ring on her lap to reward her for her good deeds!
2) Another Joyce – Richard – was out at sea with other fisherman from the Claddagh village, when they were captured by pirates. Richard, the youngest of the men, had just met his one true love and was distraught at the thought of never seeing her again. He was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith where over the years he gathered specks of his master’s gold and eventually had enough gold to make a ring for his love back in Ireland. Richard was released along with British slaves following the demands of the English King William III in 1689. He returned to the Claddagh where the love of his life had waited for him and he presented her with the very first Claddagh Ring.
The Claddagh ring was often the only heirloom of a fishing family and would have been handed down from generation to generation, a practice that continues across the world to this day.
Depending on which hand it is worn on the Claddagh Ring tells the world the status of the wearer:
The Claddagh is famous as the Irish symbol of "love, friendship and loyalty" – "Let Love and friendship Reign Forever" – and these days can be found on all sorts of items and not just rings. Browse Totally Irish Gifts to find your perfect Claddagh gift for your loved ones.
Click on a Claddagh image to be directed to that Claddagh gift.
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And watch the moon rise over Claddagh and see the sun go down in Galway Bay...
The Claddagh Ring, designed and worn in Ireland since the late 1600's, has enjoyed a growing popularity with Irish exiles the world over. The modern Galway Jeweller, Stephen Fallon Ltd, notes, The use of joined hands to denote friendship and the human heart to denote charity is common enough in forms of art which use highly conventionalized symbolism" and "rings of this general type, known as fidelity rings are not excessively uncommon. However, when referring to the crowned heart supported by two hands, it is stated that this particular style is most definitely the Claddagh Ring and nothing else.
The earliest maker of this particular design was a Galway goldsmith named Joyce who had learned his craft in a rather remarkable way. When he was still a young man, Joyce was taken by Algerian pirates, and spent a number of years of captivity in Tunis indentured to a goldsmith, where he became a skilled craftsman in precious metals. When King William acceded to the throne of England in 1689, he concluded an agreement whereby all of his subjects who were held in captivity by the Moors were to be allowed to return to their homes. Joyce returned to the town of Claddagh in County Galway and pursued a career with his new-found skills. He prospered as a worker of gold and silver until about 1730 and several examples of his ecclesiastical works are still in existence. Shortly after his return home, about 1690, Joyce created the special design that in time became known as the Claddagh Ring. The ring became popular around the town of Claddagh, and soon its popularity spread across the whole of County Galway. They were kept as heirlooms with great pride, and were passed from generation to generation, often being used as wedding rings. Even people of limited means were prepared to exert themselves to make enough money to purchase a good example of the ring. The popularity of the ring spread and, after Joyce's death, the demand rose. The tradition was carried on by the Robinson family who became the principle makers of the ring throughout the 18th century.
As to the meaning of the symbols on the ring, several stories exist. The most likely however, is one that this writer learned from an old Galway shanachie, and it had to do with the history of the time. During England's attempted conquest of Ireland, each generation of Irish resisted the yoke of slavery forced upon them. In 600 years of English intrusion into Ireland, there were no less than 14 resistance movements - 11 of which were armed rebellions! It was after one of these aborted risings - the Nine Years War of O'Neill, Maguire, and O'Donnell against the Crown - that the English decided to end the threat of the Irish clans forever. In 1607, charges of treason were fabricated against the strongest of the clan Chieftains: those of Tyrone, Tirconnell, and Fermanagh and those noble Irish leaders were forced to flee Ireland in what became known as the Flight of the Earls. After the Flight of the Earls, the Irish again found themselves victims of oppression, and, in desperation, the next generation aligned themselves against the Crown in the Williamite War. In 1691, when the last bastion of Irish resistance in that war fell with the capitulation of Limerick, the English pressed their advantage. The remaining Gaelic aristocracy was either destroyed or forced into exile in what became known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. In exile, the Gaelic Princes and their followers lamented the loss of their beloved Erin and preserved their love for Ireland in song and story.
When the Claddagh Ring was designed, the Flight of the Earls was recent memory and the Flight of the Wild Geese was a current event. Joyce, who was well aware of the heartbreak of a forced exile from Ireland, is reported to have fashioned the Claddagh Ring as a reminder to all Irishmen of the ties that bound them to their heritage. The two hands grasping a heart symbolized the embrace of mother Ireland on the hearts of the Irish wherever they may be; the heart is topped with a crown as a reminder of the Gaelic royalty forced to flee in the Flight of the Earls and later Chieftains with the Wild Geese and it was cast in gold as a reminder of the riches of Erin stolen by the Saxon invader. It received its name from the little town of Claddagh, a fishing village on Galway Bay, where Joyce introduced his creation. This is the traditional explanation offered by many Galway natives whose families go back to the days of Joyce and beyond. However, Joyce never left a written explanation of his design and modern jewelers offer various accounts of its significance hoping to improve its marketability. Its popularity with lovers - especially among the Irish - has provided other romantic explanations which further confuse the issue. Today, there is no other ring which can offer the buyer a choice of so many origins and meanings. But, as is the case with most ancient creations whose origins are clouded by the mists of time, the truth may lie somewhere between the fact and the legend that have combined in the legacy of the Claddagh Ring. As for this writer, my Claddagh ring will always remind me of the hold that Ireland has on my heart!
Well done and very informative, Mike McCormack. I relished every word!
Heritage Partner Comment by That's Just How It Was on February 17, 2016 at 6:34am
Indeed Mike McCormack...Ireland has a hold on many a Irish exiles heart, my own for example. Thank you for that wonderful information about the Claddagh ring .. I have always wondered why it was so special to Irish people, now i know.