by Michael Kabel
As with so much of the lore and myth of the Emerald Isle, the origins of the Claddagh ring lay steeped in romantic legend and adventure, and with perhaps a little blarney thrown in for good measure.
The Claddagh sign - two hands circling a crowned heart - began centuries ago in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, where the River Corrib meets Galway Bay. There, fisherman used the symbol as their crest, calling themselves the "Fishing Kings of Claddagh." In time, the symbol came to represent the village itself to passing travelers and for its residents traveling abroad.
One legend concerning the creation of the Claddagh ring involves a 16th Century Irishwoman named Margaret Joyce, who married a Spanish merchant and followed him to his homeland. They lived happily until he died, leaving her a large inheritance. She allegedly returned home and married Galway's mayor, using the money to fund bridges throughout Connacht province. As the legend goes, an eagle one day dropped the ring into her lap as a reward for her charity.
Another tale concerns an Irish prince in love with the castle maid. The girl was honest and from a good family, and the prince convinced her father of his good intentions by building a ring whose hands stood for friendship, a crown for loyalty, and a heart for love. He proposed with the ring and the maid's father gave his blessing.
But the most credible explanation for the ring is the most dramatic. Historians trace the earliest Claddagh rings to a Galway native named Richard Joyce. While embarking for a new job in the West Indies, Joyce was kidnapped by Moorish pirates and sold into slavery, eventually apprenticed to a goldsmith in Algiers. Over time Joyce became a master goldsmith and fashioned the first Claddagh ring of pure gold, as a gift and reminder of the woman he loved back home.
When King William II of England negotiated the emancipation of all overseas British prisoners in 1689, the Algerian goldsmith begged Joyce to remain in his service. Joyce returned to Galway city instead, where he discovered his true love had never married. They were quickly wed and he set up his own goldsmith shop in the village. Today the earliest and most prized Claddagh rings bear his initials RJ as a sign of their authenticity.
The Claddagh ring continued as a local sign and charm for over a century. Then, with the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, thousands of Irish men and women left their homeland for the United States and Australia, carrying the rings as an heirloom and remembrance. By custom, the ring was passed from mother to daughter through generations.
In recent times, and thanks to a small renaissance in Irish cultural awareness among its American descendants, the Claddagh has become a fashionable ornament of choice and romantic keepsake. Traditionally, the ring is worn on the left hand, with the heart pointed towards the wrist as a symbol that the wearer's heart is given to another. If the heart is "turned out" towards the fingers, it shows the wearer hopes to find one day find true love. For tradition, the words "let love and friendship reign" are spoken when presenting the ring.