St. Valentine’s Day is on the horizon, and romance is in the air. Who doesn’t love a good love story? The Irish are known for our gift of storytelling, and so it is no surprise that behind one of most popular Irish motifs is an incredible love story. The Claddagh design is iconic and deeply symbolic. The hands representing friendship and the heart for love are topped by a crown representing loyalty. Many people already know that. But fewer people know the story behind the design’s creation, although it is wonderfully romantic.
Of course, like many Irish tales, it is hard to know exactly where a wee bit of embellishment creeps in. After all, a bit of imagination can help even the best love stories. What we know is that a man named Richard Joyce lived in the Claddagh fishing village just outside Galway city. He set sail one day in the late 1600s, either to go fishing or to sail to the West Indies. Either way, he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. A goldsmith – or perhaps a silversmith – in Algeria became his master.
Joyce learned how to make jewelry. He did not dream up the Claddagh design entirely out of his own vision. Fede rings, which date back to ancient Rome, were popular at the time. This design featured two interlocking hands to represent friendship. Some fede rings also incorporated a heart. Joyce would have learned how to make this popular design and probably produced many of them during his enslavement.
Rings and Romance
In 1689, King William III of England pressured Algeria to release their slaves, and Richard Joyce was freed. Some versions of his story say that the goldsmith offered him a share of the business and his daughter’s hand in marriage to stay, but Joyce declined and returned to Galway.
One legend tells us that Joyce returned to Galway and presented his newly designed ring to his beloved, they married and lived happily ever after. Other sources suggest he designed the Claddagh ring after he returned to his native county. For generations, the Claddagh ring was found primarily in Galway and was strongly linked to the county. Only in the last 100 years has it gained the global popularity it enjoys today as an Irish symbol of love.
The intriguing symbolism of the Claddagh ring is open to some interpretation. What it says depends on how you wear it. Worn on the right hand with the heart pointing away says the wearer is single. Turn it around and keep it on the right hand to say you are in a relationship. Worn on the left ring finger with the heart pointing away, it is an engagement ring. On the same finger but turned around it is a wedding band.
Of course, you can also get Claddagh necklaces and earrings for a romantic gift that can’t be mistaken for an engagement ring!