Irish culture is full of fascinating history that we have all read about at one time or another. Little do we know, there is an entire world of myth and lore to go right along with the Emerald Isle’s history. Many events occurring in Ireland since its founding have legend and lore attached to them, making for an often intriguing story – if not entirely factual in the telling. No matter which strikes your fancy, they’re usually both pretty darn interesting. This is especially true when the tale is about the Claddagh Ring.
The Claddagh Ring is a beautiful and historical piece of jewelry that originated during the 16th century in Claddagh, Galway. For many centuries it was worn exclusively by the people in this small community, often as a wedding ring. The ring’s design features a heart cupped in two hands, above which is displayed a crown. Both then, and now, it signified love, though as time wore on, it came to include deep friendship as well. One of the long-held customs for keeping this ring states that one should never buy the ring for him or herself, but to give to someone of whom they’re fond. No longer confined to the shores of Ireland, this emblematic and simple yet elegant ring has become popular in several countries and has been shown prominently in several movies.
A man named Richard Joyce is credited with designing the ring. Legend says that he lived in Galway, and was kidnapped by an Algerian slaver and sold in the West Indies as a slave. His new master just happened to be a goldsmith, so during his time there, Joyce learned the goldsmith’s trade, soon surpassing his master in skill. When British decree abolished slavery, the goldsmith who was once his master offered Joyce his daughter’s hand in marriage if he would stay on with them. Naturally, Joyce refused and returned to his homeland with the Claddagh ring’s design.
The mythical version of the ring’s origin is more whimsical and fanciful. This version centers around a woman named Margaret Joyce (said to be related to the gent in the previous story). Margaret was twice-married: once to a wealthy Spaniard who died and left her a vast inheritance. Then she was wed to the mayor of her community. She became known as Margaret of the Bridges, owing to her decision to use some of her late husband’s wealth to have multiple bridges constructed within her home province of Connacht. So the story goes, that as she surveying one of the bridge sites, an eagle flew overhead and dropped the very first Claddagh ring into her lap.
While many people believe the ‘true’ historical version, no one really knows the origin behind the beautiful and famous ring. What we do know is that for centuries, it has persisted as a symbol of love, friendship, and honor. Used only by the residents of Galway to seal their marriages for 400 years or more, the ring is a true symbol of love in the Irish tradition.