The celebrated Claddagh ring, as we know it
today, stands as a monument to love and friendship. The design is striking and
unmistakable, two hands joined together to support a single heart, and upon it a
crown. Its motto, not surprisingly, is 'let love and friendship reign'.
Traditionally, the rings can be worn in three different manners, all declaring a
different status in the quest for love. When worn on the right hand with the
heart facing outward toward the nail, the ring signifies one whose heart is
free. When the heart is facing inward, toward the knuckle of the right hand, it
indicates that the heart is no longer available. And finally, if the ring is to
appear upon the left hand, it traditionally means that love has been plighted.
The tale of the ring is one of the greatest to be heard in Galway. It is said
that by the year 1900 the Claddagh ring had become as important to the mythology
of the city as the 14 merchant families, or tribes, that led Galway as a virtual
city-state during much of the 13th through 17th centuries. Adding to the
intrigue is the simple fact that no one can say for certain just where the ring
originated, who made it first, or exactly what its connexion with the Claddagh
is. Interestingly, through the mists of history and folklore, one name has
become more associated with the origin of the ring than any other - Richard
The story of Richard Joyes (his own variation of Joyce) is nothing short of
remarkable. As it is told, after embarking on a voyage for the West Indies,
Richard was captured by an Algerian pirate and subsequently sold into slavery.
His purchaser was a wealthy and skilled goldsmith who, noticing Richard to be
clever and adroit, trained him as an apprentice. Richard became marvelously
skilled at the trade earning the lasting respect of his master. Meanwhile, King
William III had ascended the throne of England and as a matter of first action
he sent an ambassador to Algiers to demand the immediate release of all British
subjects. Upon learning the news of Richard's imminent release, the Moor offered
Richard the hand of his only daughter in hope that he might stay. Richard
declined and shortly thereafter departed for Galway where he began a new life as
an independent jeweller, his most famous creation being the Claddagh ring - some
of which, bearing Joyes distinctive jeweller's mark, still exist today.
Another account of the ring's origin attributes the ring to Margaret Joyce, the
wealthy widow of a Spanish wine merchant who returned to Galway and married the
city's governor somewhere around the year 1600. It is said that Margaret, being
fond of philanthropy, built the greater portion of the bridges of Connaught with
her own money. One day while overseeing the construction of the bridges an eagle
flying overhead let the original Claddagh ring fall to her in reward for her
As for the ring's association with the Claddagh, it might well have been an
accident. Although the people of the Claddagh, which were known for their
dislike of new things, astoundingly adopted the ring in a nearly universal
fashion, there is little to suggest that the rings themselves first originated
with the people of that small fishing community. Remarkably, the association may
have come from the coincidental printing of a picture of the ring (then referred
to as a the 'Galway ring') and a description of the Claddagh on the same page of
a British travel publication by Anne and Samuel Hall during the 1850's. But as
with all things of this nature, there may well be far more to the truth than the
evidence that we have, and anything is possible.
So it is that the true history of this, the most famous of Irish rings, remains
elusive - always obscured by the cloak laid softly upon it by myth and folklore.
But we would be wise to remember that this is precisely what enthralls our
imagination the most. And if we are lucky enough to look down upon a Claddagh
ring on our own hand someday, we might capture a fleeting glimpse of the mystery
and wonder that has decorated the saga of the ring with such poetic grandeur.