With hands outstretched, grasps tiny but unbreakable on a tenderly shimmering heart, a powerful crown adorning the fixture and oozing strength, the Claddagh Ring – whether nestled snugly on the fingers of married couples, hanging loosely and stylishly off the digits of those still looking for love, worn tilted towards the body or away – is an instantly recognizable Irish icon and a centuries-old symbol of love, friendship and loyalty. From a land of myths and magic, beauty and art, whimsy and soul, the Claddagh Ring – beautiful and intricate, but just a ring nevertheless – has managed to capture hearts the world over and exist in the public consciousness alongside such legendary Irish heavyweights as the leprechaun, the Blarney Stone and the shamrock. How did a ring, beloved enough to be as iconic as mighty myths and historical icons, come into existence? While the exact story of the ring’s origin is not definitively known, and many legends of its creation abound, the one thing that is known for sure is that the ring originated in the small Irish fishing village of Claddagh – the ring’s namesake.
Tiny, quiet and waterlogged, the humble town, previously home primarily to fishermen, sailors, and all manner of men of the sea, was, strangely enough, perhaps the most fitting birthplace that one could have imagined for the iconic Ring; the small town, beautiful but insignificant to the untrained eye, perfectly mirrors the Claddagh Ring in that it’s true depth – beyond the beautiful surface – is hidden from plain view for only the inquisitive to discover. Indeed, the village of Claddagh – like the symbols on the ring or the styles of wearing the ring – is far more than it seems, possessing a long, storied and culturally significant history as one of the oldest fishing villages in Ireland, dating back to, at least, the 5th century. Such a historical, ancient, almost mythic village surprisingly suits the more fantastical and even magical legends that have arisen about how exactly the Claddagh Ring was created. However, the two most common and known theories about such are not truly very fantastical, magical, or supernatural in nature.
The first of the two most well-known theories about the Claddagh Ring’s creation revolves around the life of and experience of Claddagh Irishman Richard Joyce and is overwhelmingly believed in and considered to be the most accurate of all of the Claddagh Ring origin theories; this is the one believed by the vast majority. It states that Richard Joyce, a Claddagh native, was captured by the Algerians while sailing and sold into slavery in the Algiers. His master, a Moorish goldsmith, eventually needed an apprentice to help with work and, after recognizing that he had a real talent for it, took Joyce on as said apprentice and fully trained him as a goldsmith. That was when, while thinking of his Irish beloved that he remained separated from, the Claddagh Ring – as it is designed and recognized as today – was born. Joyce, now rife with the ability to create jewelry and other such works, thought up the design of and eventually skillfully crafted the first ever Claddagh Ring as an expression of love for the girl that he missed so much. This Claddagh Ring was said to feature the same design as the modern, widely recognized Claddagh Ring – the design remained relatively unchanged throughout the centuries. Richard Joyce remained chained into slavery for more than a decade, until King William III of England came into power and ordered Algeria to set free all of the British citizens that the country was holding as slaves. Joyce, being a British citizen, was finally set free and, with his newfound freedom, had no other desire than to return to the love of his life in Galway – even turning down the Moorish goldsmith’s offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage, which would have made him wealthy beyond belief. Upon finally making it back to Galway, Joyce discovered that the love of his life, devotion eternal and love everlasting, had been waiting patiently for him to return for all of these years. Joyce gave the Claddagh Ring to his beloved as a representation of the unbreakable love and loyalty he had for her, and the two were never apart again. Joyce established a successful career for himself as a goldsmith in Ireland, making and selling Claddagh Rings to others and introducing them to the world. Thus, this theory attributes the creation of the Claddagh Ring to Richard Joyce while in captivity in Algeria – a creation stemming from pure devotion and love.
The second and final of the two most popular Claddagh Ring creation theories involves the life and deeds of, ironically, another Joyce, Claddagh native Margaret Joyce (although the two were unrelated). Legend tells of Joyce, a young woman, marrying incredibly wealthy Spanish merchant Domingo de Rona and, after he eventually passed away, inheriting half of his vast and mighty fortune – an untold amount of riches and fortune. Instead of squandering it all away on wasteful excesses and mindless frivolities, however, Joyce used it to assist others and improve the community. She spent the majority of her time and wealth on building bridges, particularly in Connacht, but was also involved in other charitable acts and activities as well that have remained unspecified. Then, one day, from out of nowhere, an eagle descended from the sky and dropped the Claddagh Ring right in Margaret Joyce’s lap, seemingly providing her with a reward for or token of appreciation for her generosity and kindness. The eagle – and therefore the Claddagh Ring itself – is believed by many who know the story to have been sent from God. Thus, this theory ascribes the “birth” of the Claddagh Ring to Margaret Joyce’s kindness and, depending on what you believe, possibly God – a fitting story for a ring that is the embodiment of love and warmth.
However, when it comes to the physical design of the Claddagh Ring, consisting of a pair of hands firmly clutching a crown-laden heart, the true story of the Ring’s creation – or whatever is believed to be the true story of the Ring’s creation – is almost irrelevant. This is because, no matter who made it or how, it is almost certain that the design of the Claddagh Ring was based off of or inspired by another ring; the creator, whomever he or she was, based the Ring’s design off of another, much older ring. The basis of and original inspiration for the Ring appears to be the European “fede ring,” a popular type of ring dating back to the Roman Empire that was uniquely characterized by its design consisting solely of two hands firmly gripping one another in sworn, devoted promise – a hand design reminiscent of the heart-gripping ones hands found on the Claddagh Ring. The Claddagh Ring’s eventual signature heart and crown were added to and combined with the “fede ring’s” hands, producing the modern day Claddagh Ring that, in actuality, is a distinctive and heavily tweaked version of the “fede ring.”
That legendary design, a timeless icon of Irish culture, proud badge of Irish heritage, and symbol of Ireland’s storied history, but also a beautiful symbol of love, friendship and loyalty (represented by the heart, hands, and crown, respectively), has a universal appeal to it that has made the Claddagh Ring a beloved and enduring part of the public consciousness – not just among the Irish, but even worldwide. But it is the extensive and diverse array of ways that the ring and said design can be customized to fit personal taste or a specific occasion that has elevated the ring to the very apex of its modern popularity, the versatility and ability to morph the ring into a more fashionable or even situational style increasing the appeal of the Claddagh Ring to a wider variety of people that would not have otherwise enjoyed the ring. Such customizations available for the Claddagh Ring include the ability to choose the metal for the ring (typically silver or gold), engrave inscriptions into the band, carve special designs into the band (such as a Celtic knot design), and the ability to insert or embed precious stones and birthstones into nearly any part of the ring or design, among many other modification options. With such an immense and varied assortment available to personalize each Claddagh Ring to its wearer’s specifications, almost no two customized rings are exactly the same, sporting the exact same combinations; each ring is a reflection of its wearer’s unique preferences, and, because no two individuals are exactly the same, the custom rings mostly reflect this difference. As a result, there are technically no different kinds of Claddagh Rings that exist, as each is so vastly different in appearance from the other – even those crafted for the same special occasions or meanings – that not enough consistent similarities are present amongst the custom rings to allow them to truly be categorized or classified into a specific, narrowly defined type. However, although they are not similar enough to one another nor are any similarities that exist amongst them recurring with enough frequency to warrant a definitive classification, it has to be noted that the Claddagh Rings designed for engagements, weddings and men, tend to, more often than not, all – specific to their own groups – feature a few of the same particular characteristics.
Those Claddagh Rings that are customized as engagement rings all, as one might expect, very commonly feature large diamonds or other large gemstones (such as emeralds, sapphires, etc.) embedded into or onto the ring, most typically placed in the center of the ring where the heart of the Claddagh usually rests. While many of these customized rings choose to replace the heart completely with a regularly shaped, circular diamond or precious stone, it is just as common to see the center diamond or gem cut into the shape of a heart and placed in the middle so as not to interfere with the symbolic importance of the Claddagh Ring’s design. Another common characteristic of these engagement-stylized Claddagh Rings is high quality, expensive metal, with many individuals opting to craft their rings out of metal far superior in quality and value to that of the usual metal the regular rings are made out of. Lastly, the final modification of the custom Claddagh engagement rings that a large amount of buyers have chosen is embedding diamonds and other precious stones into the Claddagh crown for an even more royal look.
In comparison, both the wedding ring and men’s customized Claddagh Rings have very few commonly occurring characteristics amongst their respective rings. The only trait that a large portion of the Claddagh Rings designed as wedding rings seem to share is that of having the Claddagh Ring’s signature hands, heart and crown design etched into the band as engravings rather than featuring the symbols as three dimensional carvings fused onto the band as the traditional Claddagh does. This is probably the most popular of the wedding ring customizations used on the Claddagh Ring because it, essentially, makes the Claddagh Ring look the most similar to a typical wedding band while maintaining its unique symbolism, importance and beauty; it turns the Claddagh Ring into a more fresh and exciting version of an average wedding band. On the other hand, the characteristics that Claddagh Rings modified to suit men often have in common are the most general of all the traits mentioned thus far, dealing with the size and weight of the ring. Quite simply, most Claddagh men’s rings tend to be designed to be much larger in size and heavier in weight than the traditional Claddagh Ring, typically even sporting larger gemstones than the ones found on its normal counterpart. Such a bulkier design is favored with many men because its largeness and heaviness helps to prevent the ring or gemstone from falling off the finger – a necessary safeguard for those that tend to have hands on, physically demanding careers and lifestyles.
While customized rings, with all of their personalization and reflection of their wearer’s preferences, tend to explain a lot about a person, the way in which an individual wears his or her Claddagh Ring actually tells quite a lot more. From the hand the finger rests on to the direction the heart faces, each specific aspect of how the ring is worn reveals personal information about the wearer, indicating his or her relationship status and availability. If the Claddagh Ring is worn on the right hand with the heart facing outward, away from the body, then the wearer is single and looking for a relationship. However, if the Ring is worn on the right hand but with the heart facing inward, towards the body, then the wearer is in a relationship. If the Ring is worn on the left hand with the heart facing outward, away from the body, then the wearer is indicating that he or she is engaged. Lastly, if the Ring is worn on the left hand with the heart facing inward, towards the body, then the wearer is married. Although not every wearer of the ring is aware of the significance or meaning behind the four different ways of wearing the Ring, said symbolic ways are almost seeped in as much rich tradition and history as the ring itself.
Indeed, with nearly every aspect of the Claddagh Ring – from its design to the way it is worn to its relationship with the Irish – practically oozing significance and depth, it is not difficult to see why the ring is so universally enjoyed and appreciated by people of all different backgrounds, social classes and positions. In fact, perhaps it is not surprising to see that even many celebrities, Irish and non-Irish alike, have embraced the Claddagh Ring with fervor, becoming attracted to its beautiful design and symbolism like everyone else; the most significant people in our society enjoying a ring that carries immense significance is very appropriate. Such Claddagh Ring wearing celebrities range from musicians and actors to even presidents and royalty.
Some musicians that are known for wearing or for previously wearing a Claddagh Ring include Liam Gallagher, lead singer of legendary rock band Oasis, Jim Morrison, legendary lead singer of The Doors, legendary American singer Bing Crosby, and Bono, lead singer of the almighty U2. Actors who, at one point or another, were spotted wearing the Claddagh Ring include Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Sienna Miller, Mia Farrow, Daniel Day Lewis, the legendary Maureen O’Hara, American icon John Wayne, and the beloved Peter O’Toole, among many others. Additionally, members of royalty such as Queen Victoria of England and Princess Grace of Monaco, as well as legendary politicians such as John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Winston Churchill were all known to wear the Claddagh Ring on occasion. Even Walt Disney, one of the most famous men to ever exist, was known for wearing a Ring; in fact, the statute of Walt at Walt Disney World Florida features a Claddagh Ring prominently displayed on Mr. Disney’s hand, in recognition of just how often he wore it.
The Claddagh Ring, whether or not it is promoted and popularized by celebrities, will continue to remain popular throughout the decades and even centuries because of its eternal and universal themes of love and loyalty. Additionally, its variety of unique customizations will allow it to remain fresh and new and adapt to trends, ensuring its popularity and longevity.