Today the iconic claddagh ring is, along with the harp and shamrock, one of the most widely recognized and most iconically “Irish” symbols in America. The commercial value of the claddagh ring design is enormous -- and probably impossible to calculate. For owners of Irish stores in the States, the claddagh ring is literally a bread and butter item. (Several Celtic store owners recently told me that they have a hard time keeping enough claddaghs in-stock.) And the claddagh design is no longer simply a piece of jewelry. Today the claddagh is almost ubiquitous and available as a diamond engagement band, a screenprinted t-shirt, an engraved crystal wine glass, a wooden coaster or a porcelain Christmas ornament.
However, while today the claddagh ring is very much a romantic symbol of Ireland -- as a whole -- and a symbol of the hold Ireland has on the hearts of many descendants of the Irish diaspora, the rise of the claddagh as a symbol of Ireland is relatively recent.
Legends of the origin of the claddagh design are legion -- and very well told elsewhere -- but verifiable facts are much harder to come by. In part because while today the claddagh ring is seen as an almost universal Irish symbol -- I have heard it referred to many times as “that Irish ring” -- as recently as a hundred years ago the claddagh design was still a regional design and, outside of Galway, was seen as a curiosity rather than an icon. The Alexander Wilson Drake collection of antique and folk jewelry -- sold at auction in New York in 1913 -- included a classic gold claddagh style ring --described in the catalog as a “claddugh” in the Galway tradition -- but other than the Drake claddagh there are relatively few references to claddagh styles in American sources (or European collections) prior to the 1940s.
The absence of evidence regarding the claddagh, and the absence of datable early claddagh rings -- while it is widely agreed that the claddagh design probably originated somewhere between the 13th and 16th centuries, the oldest datable classic claddagh that I have been able to locate only dates to the 1630s, was probably made in France, and is currently in a private collection -- is frustrating. But the absence of any significant collection of antique claddaghs, and the veritable mountain of gold and silver claddaghs that is now produced yearly -- again, no verifiable figures exist, but based on my experience in the industry I would conservatively estimate that at least 30,000 claddagh rings will be sold this year in the United States alone-- tells a story, a story that is as much an American story as it is an Irish story, that is as fascinating as any of the claddagh legends.
But to really understand the rise of the claddagh as a global icon we have to look back, not to the misty Middle Ages, or the exiled Earls, or the time of pirates and slavers, but instead to the much more recent horrors of the 19th century, to Famine, poverty and mass migration.
Despite the recent recession it is almost impossible for most modern Americans or Irish to comprehend the material deprivation and endemic poverty that categorized the day to day lives of most Irish men and women for most of the 19th century. Blessedly, we now live in a world where, short of a massive disaster, most married couples can have more to show for a lifetime of hardwork than a spare set of bedsheets, a few iron cookpots and a dozen children. But for many of our ancestors that was not the case. In the 19th century something as simple as a slim gold claddagh ring was a symbol of almost unimaginable prosperity for many of the hardworking men and women of Ireland. As late as the 1870s it was still common in Munster for a man to rent a gold band so that, at least for the ceremony, his bride could wear gold on her finger. It is stories like that, and the realization that even small landowners clinging to the edges of material prosperity would never be able to offer their children a better life -- unless the majority of their sons and daughters chose emigration or the Church -- or, in the darkest years of the 19th century, even a life, that explain why America became a beacon for the Irish. It also explains, to a lesser extant, why Ireland -- and the icons, stories and artifacts of Ireland -- would become so important to Irish-Americans.
Like many descendants of the 19th century tide of Irish emigrants to America I inherited nothing material from the “old country.” My Irish ancestors brought little more to this country than the clothes on their backs, their blood, and a driving sense of hunger. (The same is true of most of my other emigrant ancestors.) And that, with a few variations, is the story of most of the Irish who came to America between the 1840s and the 1890s.
My ancestors brought no precious heirlooms from the old country. The only treasure they brought with them was their blood, and they shed it lavishly: In a gunfight in the streets of old Sacramento, on the job on the streets of New York, other places. Combat and accidents, pride and duty all took their toll. But, America had its rewards too. And, by the late 19th century many Americans -- and Irish-Americans -- were beginning to enjoy a material prosperity that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier.
The rising tide of consumer culture -- evidenced by the new retailing giants like Wanamakers, Sears & Roebuck, Marshall Fields and the growing chains of five and dime stores that sold everything from necessities to novelties to working men and debutantes alike -- in America coincided with the emergence of the Irish-American middle-class.
While the stories of many recent Irish emigrants would still revolve around the stark realities of cold water tenement flats, discrimination, brutal backbreaking lowpaying jobs and a pervasive sense of homesickness, by the late 19th century many of the children and grandchildren of the Famine generation of emigrants were beginning to enjoy the fruits of America’s increasingly industrial, and increasingly urban, prosperity.
And jewelers were more than willing to cater to the tastes of the newly prosperous descendants of the Irish diaspora. But amidst the slew of designs that came out for the burgeoning Irish diaspora market, the claddagh was noticeably absent.
Instead, American (and British) mass manufacturers churned out shamrocks -- as pricey diamond and emerald inlaid brooches, modest enameled chain fobs, aggressively masculine cufflinks, and novelty finger-rings -- and harps -- as, literally, almost anything. In retrospect it is easy to brush aside these mass produced items as mere kitsch. (Although, it is hard to think of an 18ct gold shamrock inlaid with two carats worth of diamonds as “kitsch.”) But, in reality even the least expensive and kitschiest of these baubles was a symbol of the hardwon prosperity of the Irish overseas and the undefeatable pride of a still discriminated against minority that was not only willing, but eager, to wear a symbol of Ireland.
Today the motivations that lead people to buy a claddagh ring are very different than the motivations that drove shoppers a century ago. A romantic story means more. The hard times that led the men of Munster to rent wedding bands for their brides are long forgotten. But the desire for a sense of connection remains.
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