The "Claddagh" Ring. By W. DILLON* taken from the Journal (June 1903) of Galway Archaeological and Historical Society

The "Claddagh" Ring.

By W. DILLON*

Eings the device of which consists of two hands clasped in

sign of friendship are common. And the same may be said of

rings with a heart for the device. The emblematic character is

pretty obvious in either case. The ring worn locally by the peas-

antry as a wedding-ring, and commonly known as the " Claddagh "

ring, has a more elaborate device, with much more character and

originality. It consists, as we are all probably aware, of two

hands holding between them or presenting a heart : and over the

heart is a crown.

 

Occasionally one finds a heart ring which seems to approach

the design of the " Claddagh " ring : here for instance f we have

a ring of base metal which Miss Eedington picked up in Nor-

mandy, with a crowned heart; while the floriated ends of the

hoop may possibly be, but are not necessarily, some sort of rem-

iniscence of the hands of our design.

 

The charm of our local design in its completeness is now

generally recognised ; and the ring has become a fashionable one,

though indeed not exactly as a wedding-ring. It was the only

ring ever made in Ireland for Queen Victoria ; and His Majesty

King Edward VII. wore one of these when passing through this

portion of his dominions. It is however only of late years that

the charm of the design has struck outsiders. And it is as the

wedding-ring used by the local peasantry for many generations

that it is of interest to us here.

 

The limits of the district over which the ring is thus worn

are, roughly, from the Aran Isles on the west, and all through

Connemara and Joyce's Country, to Galway, and then eastward

and southward for not more than 12 miles at the most. The

whole district, it may be remarked, is one that is served by Galway

 

* Part of this paper was contributed by the Editor, part by Mr. Dillon.

It will be seen that the subject requires further investigation : and this must

only be considered as a preliminary treatment of it.

 

f Exhibited, but not shown in photograph.

 

GALWAY ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

THE "CLADDAGH" RING. 13

 

as the trade centre. The desire of the very poorest to have the

orthodox ring is very noticeable. Compare this district with the

Athlone district, for instance : there the poor are satisfied with

a ring at 5/-; here they are willing to stint themselves in other

directions in order to pay four times that amount.

 

While it is worn, as we have said, over a much wider district,

there is nevertheless some justification for its being designated

the " Claddagh " ring. The objection to the title would be that

the Claddagh people being, as is well known, in many respects a

separate community, with customs of their own, it might be in-

ferred from the name that the use of this ring was among their

peculiar customs ; which would of-course be a mistake. But num-

bers of these rings, so great that it is difficult to realise it, came

from the Claddagh in years gone by. I have been informed by

Mr. Kirwan that after the famine years '46 and '47 he had left on

his hands " Claddagh " rings, on which he had advanced cash, in

his pawnbroking business, to the extent of £500, and which were

chiefly pawned by people of the Claddagh, who were then emigra-

ting in hundreds : Mr. Kirwan seeing no prospect of them being

ever redeemed, realised his money by selling them as old gold to

be broken up and consigned to the melting-pot. The "Claddagh"

ring was not at that time the fashionable ring which it is now,

and there being no purchasers, these fine old rings, many of them

being the rare old G.R. rings now value for £5 each, were con-

signed to the melting-pot at the comparatively low price to be

obtained for old gold. The fact is that the Claddagh population

was at this time greatly reduced, hundreds going to the U.S.A.,

where to the present day there exists a colony of them, at Boston,

called Claddagh after their ancestral village.

 

I may remark, by the way, that the country people often

find the rings useful to raise money on; being all of good gold

they make a safe pledge : and I have myself seen, some 20 years

ago, 12 large wire rings at the pawnbroker's, one for each month

of the year, and a quantity of " Claddagh " rings on each one of

them.

 

When we endeavour to trace the history of the ring, we find

that we cannot as yet get very far back. The earliest rings that we

meet with are those of George Robinson, a goldsmith who probably

came from England, and who flourished in Galway early in the

latter half of the 18th century. He registered his name in the

Goldsmiths' Hall, Dublin, in 1784, in accordance with the Act

passed in that year requiring such registration. We have here one

14 GALWAY ARCHJSOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

 

of his rings.* They are all stamped inside the shank G.R. We

sometimes find other initials, engraved, not stamped : these would

be the initials of the owner. After George Robinson came Andrew

Robinson, who was at work 100 years ago. He used to make

rings of guinea gold, actually of guineas. T. J. Connolly who was

a bookseller in the town a few years ego told me how when

Robinson wanted to make rings he (Connolly) would go out, as a

lad, to get him guineas for them.

 

It is very desirable that much earlier "(■hiddagh" rings of

undoubted authenticity should be discovered, but though we

cannot find any such it is quite certain that Robinson did not

invent or introduce the design, but found it here already in use.

It would be impossible to believe that the country people, so

tenacious as they are of old customs and traditions, should have

universally adopted a new fashion in the 18th century, a fashion

introduced into Galway by an English goldsmith. Nevertheless,

the fact remains that of the hundreds worn throughout the

district, there do not appear to be any of older date than the time

of Robinson. Is it not reasonable to suppose that the older rings

were made of base metal, perhaps, and were discarded in the 1 St h

century and destroyed when it became a fashion, perhaps a sign

of respectability, to wear gold ones only ?

 

But we have here, lent among other exhibits by Mr. R. Day,

F.S.A., a well-known antiquary in Cork, an interesting silver ring

bought in Gal way in 1873. t The shank is ornamented with

chasing ; as to the rest, the device is the same in detail as that of

all the " Claddagh " rings but for the absence of the crown. But

it is distinct enough in character for one thing to be pretty clear,

namely, that it was not copied from a ring of Robinson's or a later

make. We suggest that this is an example of the ring that

Robinson found in common use on his advent to Galway. And

while it bears no stamp to give us maker's name or date, we may,

nevertheless, be fairly sure about it.

 

There is here J a bronze specimen that we cannot be so sure

about. It was found during excavations in the town, some 15

years ago. It is made from an old coin: some of the lettering of

the coin is still visible, though not enough to identify it by. It

seii i is to me to have been made from the ; coin in the same way

 

 

 

• No 5 in the photograph.

f No. '2 in the photograph.

 

* No. 1 in the photograph.

 

 THE " CLADDAGH " RING. 15

 

that sailors often make rings from silver coins, on a marline spike.

The design of the head was afterwards chased and punched. It

is not possible to date this ring. It conforms even more closely

in detail to the present-day type, than the silver one. And it is

possible that it is quite modern. Had the circumstances of its

discovery been recorded with more accuracy we might be in a

position to prove, what indeed we believe, that it is not modern

at all, but of much older date than the gold ones. We may note

a feature that this ring has in common with our usual one, the

peculiar form of the crown. It is a partly cleft crown of a more

or less mitre-like shape, with a spike arising from the cleft.

 

We have another gold ring," in which the design is done

throughout with a chasing punch. In that respect it is different

from any of the others. This is a posey ring : it contains the words

" Yours in Hart." Mr. Day bought this ring at a Dublin jewel-

ler's between thirty and forty years ago.

 

Now what was the origin of the "Claddagh" ring design?

This we cannot answer with certainty: but the fact that it is used

only in a district served by Galway as a trade centre leads one to

believe that it must have been introduced by voyagers to Galway

from Spain or other continental countries. Seeing that Galway

at one time, as is well known, carried on a large and prosperous

trade with Spain, it is not at all unlikely that it was originally in-

troduced from that country. The late Lieutenant Henn, R.N.,

told me that a Spanish jeweller at once recognised his " Claddagh "

ring as being somewhat similar to designs also used in Spain.

But we regret that we have not as yet obtained any further infor-

mation with respect to the Spanish variety.

 

There is a different variety of similar design which is some-

times called the Munster ring.f Mr. Day procured examples,

years ago, in Limerick and Tralee ; but he thinks there is reason

to suspect that they were made in Birmingham in imitation of the

■" Claddagh" rings, and that they have no title to be called after

the Province of Munster.

 

It would be interesting if from the use of the ring in Galway

and possibly in part of Munster an Irish, or a Celtic, origin

could be inferred. And there is a further point of, we think, great

interest : namely that the peasantry of Brittany have a ring with

a design that is*in principle exactly similar. W T e here exhibit a

 

* No. 3 in the photograph,

f No. 6 in photograph.

 

16 GALWAY ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

 

ring procured in Brittany over thirty years ago by Mrs. Mahon of

Ballydonelan { No doubt rings of the same type are there used

still. And we have heard that in Brittany, just as here in the

West of Ireland, these rings, used as wedding-rings, are highly

prized and are handed down as heirlooms, while a new ring is

procured for every fresh marriage, the ring inherited or used

earlier never doing duty again.

 

This use of a similar ring in Brittany seems to us, as we have

said, a point of great interest. For here is a race of people in so

many points similar to our Claddagh and Connemara people:

living on a seaboard, largely a seafaring people, conservative apd

simple-minded, Celtic moreover in race, and speaking a Celtic

language, though of a different kind from ours. And with so many

points in common between them, we find also this use of a similar

wedding-zing. But though this might seem to suggest a remote

antiquity for the design, it would indeed be absurd to main-

tain that it dates from a time when there was any connection

between Celtic peoples now so remote. And we must rather

conclude that it was chance that brought to both peoples the same

design (through intercourse with Spain, perhaps, but we do not

know) ; and that it was a similar poetic temperament — for we

know that they do resemble each other in temperament — that led

both peoples to appreciate the charm and appropriateness of the

design, and to adopt it as their own.

 

I No. 4 in the photograph. 

Read online here: http://archive.org/stream/pt1journ04galwuoft#page/10/mode/2up

Further Reading:

A 19th Century Account of The Claddagh

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Tags: Claddagh, Galway, Ring, history

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