In February we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day and all things romantic. Stores are filled with red and pink hearts. Children make cards for their classmates in school while adults look for the one perfect card for that one person who is perfect for them. Celtic jewelry featuring the Claddagh design is one of the popular Irish gifts for Valentine’s Day.
It’s a richly symbolic gift of love. The heart is obvious. The hands represent friendship, and the crown is for loyalty. Love, friendship and loyalty are the ingredients for a happy, healthy relationship.
Behind that popular design is a beautiful love story. It features all of the elements a tale of romance needs to tug at our hearts. A couple meets, but then something terrible happens. They have some test of their love, and initially, it looks bleak. But the two souls prove themselves, and at last, they triumph and ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after.
We love stories like this, and the love story behind the Claddagh ring and its place in Irish jewelry history is exceptionally compelling because it is true.
The Love Story behind the First Claddagh Ring
Claddagh was a fishing village just outside Galway city, right on the shore when the River Corrib flows into the bay. Hundreds of fishing families lived there in traditional cottages, and among them was a man named Richard Joyce. He lived a typical fisherman’s life. He grew up on the boats, and he fell in love with a local girl. They became engaged, and life was grand until one day Richard disappeared at sea. The weather was fine, so his loved ones might have suspected that his boat had not capsized. They might have guessed he’d been captured by pirates, but beyond that, they knew no more.
Joyce was sold into indentured servitude. The silver lining on this cloud was that instead of being put to do dangerous, hard labor, he was purchased by a goldsmith. For years he worked, learning the craft and eventually letting his imagination inspire him to create his own designs. At the time, fede rings were popular. They featured two hands clasping each other. No doubt Joyce took some inspiration from this when he designed the first Claddagh ring. But the main thing on his mind was his beloved, the woman he’d been about to marry before he was captured.
With This Claddagh Ring…
He had no way to know if she had married another or waited. And she had no way to know if he’d ever return. But eventually, Joyce won his freedom and made his way home. He brought the ring he’d designed for his love. He arrived home and found that she had indeed waited. She had been loyal, as had he. They married, and she wore the ring symbolizing the love, loyalty and friendship the couple shared.
Today, Claddagh rings are still exchanged by sweethearts and used as wedding rings. The Claddagh design features on all sorts of other Irish gifts too, but the ring is the classic thing. How the Claddagh ring is worn is also meaningful.
Before Facebook, it was used to signal one’s relationship status. Worn on the right hand with the heart pointed away from the hand, it indicates the wearer is single. If the heart is pointed toward the hand, it says the wearer is unmarried but in a relationship. One the left hand, if it is pointed outward it is an engagement ring. Turned around to point inward on the left hand, and it announces that the wearer is married.