The Claddagh Ring: A Classic Design, and a Worthy Badge

Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

In another month we’ll be in the throes of St. Patrick’s Day, typically the “Holy Season” of grand parades, festivities, spiritual worship, quiet reflection and general celebration of all things Irish – or not – depending upon the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When will we see our return to days of glory? I am thinking this year might not be it. No green hair, no shamrock tattoos, no buttons spouting phrases like “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”

But the day will still dawn, and the good Saint will still be with us. And, with the hope that vaccination and subsequent herd immunity offers, a trip to Ireland with good friends, derailed last year by COVID-19, once again graces my drawing board.

One destination I would like to see is a small fishing village in County Galway.  Now, there are many small fishing villages throughout Ireland, and this precise one I might search for has no familial connection to me. This particular village I am reminded of every day when I glance down at the ring finger of my left hand – Claddagh.

Today, awareness or possession of a Claddagh ring is fairly widespread. To me it is a far better badge than many. But what of the village that gave the ring its name? What of the ringsmith who first crafted its beautiful design?

While its popularity has skyrocketed in the last 60 or 70 years, the ring has been in existence since the 1600s, and has a fascinating story behind it. No less than four jewelers, all of whom worked near Galway, are variously credited with development of the distinctive style, though the concept of the clasped hands is one that dates from Roman times.

One of the four, Richard Joyce, is usually credited with creating the Claddagh’s distinctive design, combining the clasped hands around a heart with a crown atop it.

Joyce’s story is also fascinating. A native of Claddagh, he set off for the West Indies in the late 1600s to seek his fortune. While en route, he was captured by Algerian pirates and sold into slavery. In Algeria, he became the possession of a goldsmith who taught him his craft.

While so engaged, Joyce fashioned a ring that he hoped he would one day be able to give to the proverbial “girl he left behind.” Fortune smiled upon him, and after 14 years, Joyce was freed, returned to Ireland, married the waiting lass and set out his shingle as a ringsmith of particular talent.

A visitor trying to find Claddagh today would be hard-pressed. The small village suffered a tuberculosis outbreak in the 1920s, and all the structures were razed and the villagers relocated, a fate shared in those days by many more remote locales.

But Joyce’s design had become extremely popular well before then as a symbol of Irish heritage and pride, with its three symbols of the heart, the hands and the crown. But what do they signify? Quite simply, the hands represent friendship, the heart represents a loved one and the crown represents loyalty to that loved one.

While there are a variety of traditions on the significance of how the wearer chooses to display the ring, most of these seem to be of more recent concoction, and are by no means rooted in legend or lore. But they are worth a mention, so here they are: if worn on the right hand and the heart points to the tip of the finger, the wearer is single and unattached; right hand again, heart pointed toward the arm, the wearer is in a relationship with someone, serious or otherwise; on the left hand, heart pointed to the tip, the wearer is engaged; left hand, heart toward the arm, the wearer is married.

Believe whatever you may, it’s a beautiful design, with a beautiful tale behind it, and far better than a button worn once a year.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.

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