The legend of the famous Claddagh ring design is, like many great Irish tales, a mix of fact and expansive storytelling. The Claddagh was a fishing village of low stucco homes, thatched roofs and barefoot children running down dirt streets, across the Corrib River from Galway City. It’s believed to have originated all the way back in the 5th century.

Claddagh ring celebrityToday, the Claddagh enjoys a reputation as the purest and last embodiment of Ireland before it was touched by modernity. It had eccentric social customs. There was a King of the Claddagh, for example, who sailed a boat (a Galway hooker, of course) with a special white sail, and played a real and important role in settling disputes among village residents. A new king was elected each year on June 23rd in an elaborate ritual involving villagers wandering the streets carrying poles topped with flaming reeds.

By the early 20th century, many Irish writers and artists had become fascinated by the way the Claddagh (like the Aran Islands) seemed to embody Ireland’s essential spirit. But the old fishing village was dying out due to competition from modern trawlers. A Tuberculosis epidemic that ran through it in 1927 proved to be it’s death blow, prompting the government to relocate all residents to other areas and begin demolishing their homes. By 1934, forward-thinking city planners in Galway had torn down the last few buildings in the Claddagh. The village that had once housed about 500 families was now consigned to memory.
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What About The Ring?

The Claddagh ring design, now worn by luminaries such as actor Gabriel Byrne and rock star Bono, is said to have been designed in the 17th century by a Claddagh resident named Richard Joyce. Mr. Joyce was one of many people kidnapped from the Claddagh by pirates from Algiers and sold into slavery in a foreign land. During his many years of servitude, he was lucky enough to be taught the art of goldsmithing by his master. Eventually released, Joyce returned to the Claddagh to find his love still waiting for him. To honor her faithfulness, he created the now-famous heart, crown and hands design that appears on millions of Claddagh rings worldwide.

C32 s2829It’s a lovely story that no one can prove actually happened (A competing legend says an eagle simply dropped the fantastic ring into the hands of Joyce’s wife after he was married. Believe what you like). Whatever the true story is, there’s no doubt that Claddagh rings go back at least a few hundred years, and that a culture has grown up around them. To many in Ireland and America, they’re seen as a powerful symbol of loyalty and love. There are also some quirky ideas attached to them.

For example, the way you wear one is supposed to tell the world something about your romantic inclinations:

On your right hand, with the point of the heart in the direction of your fingertips (away from your own heart) = you are single in interested in finding love.

Right hand with the heart’s point towoard the wrist, or toward your own heart = you have a relationship.

Left hand, point of heart toward your fingertip = you are engaged.

Left hand, point of heart toward your heart = you are married.

Other Claddagh facts:
Queen Victoria of England started wearing a Claddagh ring after she visited Ireland in 1849. Her son Edward wore one, and his son George the 5th started wearing one when he gained the crown.

Speaking of royalty, American movie star Grace Kelly also wore a Claddagh ring when she was Princess of Monaco. Of course, she had a bit more Irish heritage than Queen Victoria.

Some historians say the Claddagh ring is actually far older than most people realize, and that it’s simply a variant on “Fede” rings that date all the way back to Roman times.

A key to the enduring popularity of the design is that many Irish emigrants came to America with little more than the clothes on their backs. But even the poor often came with one prized possession: a Claddagh ring that was a family heirloom. New York customs officers reported that many of the rings began turning up at Castle Garden, the forerunner of Ellis Island, in the late 1880’s. Many of those rings were passed down to the next generation, helping to establish the Claddagh design as a familiar symbol in the new Irish-American world.

The Claddagh was an important stronghold of the Irish language, even into the 20th century. Enjoy these pictures of the old Claddagh:
children running through Claddagh village Ireland
Ireland old Claddagh
women's dress styles Claddagh village
Ireland's old Claddagh with thatched roofs

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