The Claddagh Ring, designed and worn in Ireland since the late 1600s, 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. It was originally used by locals as wedding rings and later it was also used by single persons. Married or betrothed persons took to wearing the ring with the heart facing inward to signify that their heart was taken while single persons wore the ring with the heart facing outward to indicate that their heart was available. 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 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!
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