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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

History of Irish Claddagh Rings

Today we're talking about rings again. I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood and these little claddagh rings - you know, it’s that one with the two hands holding the heart.

What is a claddagh ring?

First, let’s talk about how you even SAY this word! Claddagh is pronounced like CLAD-Uh. The emphasis is on the first syllable. Now that you know how to say the word, you should know the hands represent friendship, the heart means love, and the crown is for loyalty. Although this particular ring stye is pretty new, the symbolism of clasped hands goes all the way back to Roman times.

Joining hands together was a way to pledge loyalty to a person. The symbol was common for engagement and wedding rings in medieval times and during the Renaissance in Europe. So for over 1,000 years (from the 500’s to the 1600’s).

The rings with two hands were called fede rings. Because “mani in fede” means “hands joined in loyalty” in Italian.

Antique fede ring, precursor to the Claddagh ring
An antique fede ring, precursor to the Claddagh ring

So the Claddagh ring is a more modern type of fede ring. And of course, it’s Irish!

A claddagh love story

It’s always nice when you can trace a design back to a love story. Supposedly, an Irish man named Richard Joyce was captured and sold into slavery by some Algerians. You may wonder what Algerians were doing way up in Ireland, but it turns out our friend Richard was sailing to the West Indies when he was captured by pirates. That was back in 1675. Now in Algeria, Richard spent his 14 years as a slave under a Moorish goldsmith, who taught him the trade. Later, all slaves in Algeria who were British subjects were released and allowed to go home.

He brought a ring back to Ireland with him, presented it to his sweetheart, and they married. Apparently, he became quite a successful goldsmith.

Get your claddagh ring straight from Ireland

He was from a place called the Claddagh, which is located in Galway, a fishing village in Ireland. And his initials are found on the earliest surviving claddagh rings.

It wasn’t until the 1830’s that Claddagh rings were actually called Claddagh rings. And they were very much a regional thing, not known outside of Galway, and certainly not outside of Ireland.

Claddagh goes viral

The Irish came to America in droves during the Great Potato Famine, which started in 1845. Often, their most prized possession was a claddagh ring, passed down through generations as a family heirloom.

In 1849, a claddagh ring was famously made for Queen Victoria by a Galway jeweler. She loved it and loved wearing it! And so did her son, King Edward and his wife Queen Alexandra. The royals have a knack for influencing trends and fashions.

Claddagh ring featuring a sapphire
Claddagh ring featuring a sapphire

And in 1853, an incredibly popular book about traveling through Ireland discussed the history and romanticism of the Claddagh ring.

All these events caused the popularity of the claddagh ring to explode in the 1850’s. It became not just a traditional ring between lovers, but a symbol of pride in Irish heritage.

Famous folks and claddagh rings

So many Americans have Irish heritage and want to showcase it. And even if you don’t, a trip to Ireland can inspire you to pick up the ring as a souvenir. John F. Kennedy purchased a ring for his wife Jackie when they visited Ireland in 1963. Two other American presidents, Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton, were gifted claddagh rings from the Irish. Actors Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne were both given claddagh rings while filming in Ireland. Peter O’Toole, Walt Disney, Daniel Day Lewis, Gabriel Byrne, Mia Farrow, Grace Kelly, and Jim Morrison all had and wore claddagh rings. In film, the Claddagh ring has been featured in both Days of Our Lives and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Claddagh rings today

Whether you’re Irish or not, Claddagh rings are easy to find. They’re on Etsy and Amazon. Modern and antique. They come in silver (they’re most popular in sterling silver) and gold. Even rose gold. You can get them with your birthstone. With another stone. Or with other Irish symbols, like Celtic knots.

Who out there is Irish? Do you have a claddagh ring? Does your mother or grandmother? I’d love to see it! Take a picture and tag me on instagram.

This post has been edited and updated since it was originally published on March 14, 2019.


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