Legendary Claddagh Rings: What are the True Origins of these Symbolic Irish Wedding Rings?
The Claddagh ring design of two hands holding a crowned heart is a recognizable symbol of Ireland and enduring love. It is hugely popular as a fashion accessory and a symbolic gesture. While everyone seems to know the rules of the Claddagh ring that lead up to it being worn as a wedding ring, few people know 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.
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The Claddagh ring is a particular example of the much broader ring category called fede or faith 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. These types of rings were popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.
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 Ring – the Wedding Ring of Richard Joyce
It is generally accepted that the Claddagh was made as a wedding ring. Although there is no question that the first Claddagh ring appeared in Claddagh in Ireland around the year 1700, who made it and why is subject to many different theories.
One claims an eagle dropped a completed Claddagh ring 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)
Swans in the Claddagh. (CC BY SA 3.0) Legends say Richard Joyce, of Claddagh, created the first Claddagh wedding ring for his beloved.
Richard became the property of a Moorish goldsmith. The goldsmith was sufficiently impressed by Richard as to teach him the trade and help him to become a master goldsmith.
“To keep his spirits up and to keep hope in his heart, each day Richard stole a tiny speck of gold from his slave masters in the goldsmith shop where he tended the fires. Years passed and, with his tiny pieces of gold, he was finally able to fashion a ring. It was his hope that, despite what seemed nearly impossible, he would return to his village and present the ring to his true love.” (Irish Indeed, 2017)
Meanwhile, an ambassador of King William III had been to Algeria and was horrified to discover good Christian Britons were being kept as slaves. He demanded the Moorish king release all British subjects who were currently enslaved. If Richard was really enslaved to an Algerian goldsmith, this could have been how he regained his freedom. However, other accounts say that he made a daring escape and stealthily made his way from Algeria to Ireland. Still others argue that the Moorish goldsmith offered Richard a partnership and his daughter’s hand in marriage but Richard refused. The goldsmith was so impressed by the young man’s loyalty to his love that he released him from bondage. In any event, Richard Joyce eventually made it back to his village in Ireland.
“At his journey's end, Richard was overcome with joy when he learned that his beloved had remained true to him in his long absence, waiting faithfully for him to return. It was on that day that Richard gave his beloved the ring he created that is now known worldwide as the Claddagh Ring.” (Irish Indeed, 2017)
The long-established Claddagh Ring Goldsmiths and Museum, containing examples of Richard Joyce’s wedding rings. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Keeping Claddagh Rings in the Family
The Claddagh wedding ring gained popularity as it developed a tradition of being an investment for poor fishing families. A mother would pass her wedding ring down to her daughter or daughter-in-law and so on and so on. This tradition became especially poignant during the awful years of the 19th century when millions of Irish people fled the country hoping for a better life in America or Australia.
Wedding Rings for the Rich and Famous
Some famous people who have worn Claddagh rings include Queen Victoria and Princess Grace of Monaco. But perhaps the most iconic Claddagh ring wearer of this generation is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though she did not wear it as a wedding ring. “A present to her on her 17th birthday from her vampire lover, Angel, the ring was to symbolize their enduring love for each other – in spite of the obvious difficulties and even one day call Angel back from Hell” (Royal Claddagh, 2014).
Even more recently, there are also rumors that Kanye West bought his wife Kim Kardashian a solid silver Claddagh ring when they visited Ireland.
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Two silver Claddagh Rings on flowers. (Public Domain)
Today, Claddagh rings are popular not only for their aesthetic and symbolic appeal, but they are also sometimes used as an identification with Irish identity. This aspect is also apparent with newer additions to Claddagh ring designs that include other Celtic or Irish symbols, such as Celtic knots or interlacing around the band.
How Should I Wear My Claddagh Ring?
In case you are unfamiliar with them, the most commonly recognized Claddagh ring rules are:
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips: the wearer is single and may be looking for love.
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is in a relationship.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips: the wearer is engaged.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is married.
Top Image: A gold Claddagh wedding ring. Source: Royalcladdagh/CC BY SA 3.0
Updated on January 6, 2021.
The British Museum. "Fede Ring / Gimmel-ring." The British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum, 2017. Web. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=79510&partId=1
Irish Indeed. "The Legend of the Claddagh." Irish Indeed. St. Patrick's Guild, 2017. Web. https://www.irishindeed.com/legend-of-the-claddagh
Royal Claddagh. "The Meaning of the Claddagh Ring." Royal Claddagh. N.p., 26 Jan. 2014. Web. https://claddagh.com/meaning-claddagh-ring//
With These Rings. "History of the Wedding Ring." With These Rings. With These Rings, 2017. Web. http://withtheseringshandmade.com/history-of-wedding-rings/