Legendary Claddagh Rings: What are the True Origins of these Symbolic Irish Wedding Rings?
Claddagh rings are hugely popular both as fashion accessories and as symbolic gestures. The Claddagh design of two hands holding a crowned heart is a recognizable symbol of Ireland, particularly Galway. Everyone seems to know the rules of the Claddagh ring that led up to it being worn as a wedding ring. However, less well known is its history. The Claddagh ring is, in fact, just one of the more popular iterations of a design used for pledges, vows, and wedding rings that goes all the way back to the ancient Romans.
Specific Symbolism of a Claddagh Wedding Ring
A Claddagh wedding ring represents friendship (the two hands), love (the heart), and loyalty (the crown). The earliest appearance of this design dates back to the early 1700s in an Irish fishing village called Claddagh (thus the name). Since that time, the village has been incorporated into the city of Galway.
The Claddagh ring is a particular example of the much broader ring category called fede rings. The classification is shorthand for the Italian phrase mani in fede which means ‘hands joined in fidelity.’ Like modern wedding rings, these were considered tangible symbols of promises of friendship or love.
Claddagh Ring Design Sign. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The Historic Power of Wedding Rings
The power and symbolism of rings dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who saw the circular object as a powerful symbol: “the band with no end representing eternal life and love, and its opening representing a gateway to worlds unknown” (With These Rings, 2017). Egyptians exchanged rings as signs of loyalty and similarly Greeks exchanged them as signs of endless love. But it was the Romans who first linked the symbolism of the ring with matrimony. The most common wedding ring was a fede ring showing two hands clasped together in an agreement to love and honor one another. The gesture is known as dextrarum iunctio in Latin.
Byzantine Empire Wedding Ring. The motif of the clasped hands, signifying love, betrothal, and marriage, was first introduced in the Roman period and remained a popular symbol until the 19th century. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Modern Claddagh Wedding Ring
Fashions changed with time and the obvious imagery of the shaking hands gave way to wedding rings depicting images of the married couple or, after the rise of Christianity, crosses and other holy symbols to show that Jesus blessed the union.
However, the fede wedding ring would eventually make a comeback starting in the 1100s and lasting up until today. Interestingly, it was not until the 18th century that marriages began to take place predominantly in churches.
The design of a traditional Irish Claddagh ring symbol on a banner. ( CC BY-AT 3.0 )
The British Museum explains how weddings were often held:
“Until Lord Hardwicke's 1753 Act of Marriage there was no clearly defined process for a marriage ceremony and entering the state of matrimony was governed by local customs and rituals. With the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 by Edward VI (r.1547-53), there was a clear attempt to encourage people to marry within a church. Nevertheless, canon law prevailed and for this all that was required was the mutual consent of both parties. In addition to uttering words expressing this consent, there were certain signs and symbols that could indicate consent; the holding of hands and the giving of a ring were two of these visible (though not necessary) signs.” (The British Museum, 2017)
Legendary Stories of the First Claddagh and the Wedding Ring of Richard Joyce
The Claddagh ring was doubtless made as a wedding ring. Although there is no question that the first Claddagh ring appeared in Claddagh around the year 1700, who made it and why is subject to many different theories. One claims an eagle dropped a completed Claddagh into the lap of a very charitable woman to reward her for her good deeds. Another tells how the ring was designed by a prince who fell in love with a commoner and had to prove to his father that he really wanted to marry her.
Yet, the most widely told story involves Richard Joyce and his patiently waiting love, Margaret. Richard was a fisherman from Claddagh, a dangerous profession in the 17th century. One day, Spanish pirates captured the Claddagh boat and sold its whole crew, including Richard, into slavery in Algeria on the North African Coast.
“Richard, the youngest of those captured, was the most distraught. All men had left loved ones behind, but Richard had just met his true love and now feared that he would not live to see her again. Years passed and several of the men died. Others accepted their fate. Richard worked as a slave, but continued to long for a return to his village and to his beloved.” (Irish Indeed, 2017)