One of the most famous symbols of Ireland, certainly in regards to jewelry, is the claddagh ring. This symbolic motif has transcended its Irish roots and is now popular with people from many different nationalities. With such universal themes as love and friendship, it's easy to see why this ring has endured over hundreds of years.
The name Claddagh is thought to reference a fishing village in Galway Bay in Ireland. The term itself is an anglicized version of the Gaelic word for “shore”. There are many myths and legends surrounding the origin of the claddagh design, but the only one that seems to have historic basis in fact concerns Richard Joyce in the 16th Century. Joyce left Ireland to pursue work in the West Indies, but was captured and sold as a slave to a goldsmith in Algiers. When he was eventually freed and able to return to Ireland and his long awaited love, it is believed he created the claddagh ring to symbolize his devotion to her. In the Galway region, the claddagh ring was popular as far back as four hundred years. It wasn’t until the ever trendsetting Queen Victoria wore one in the mid 19th century that it became more broadly popular. Since then, it has been worn by Hollywood actors, American presidents, and ordinary people alike.
The claddagh consists of two hands cradling a heart, topped with a crown or coronet. Each element represents a different attribute:
Together, the symbols represent faithful love and friendship, either romantic or platonic. Though traditionally cast entirely in gold or silver, sometimes a heart shaped gemstone will replace the heart symbol, or diamonds or emeralds will accent the design. In jewelry, the claddagh motif is also used in earrings, pendants, cufflinks, and sometimes in the form of a pattern around a band.
Claddagh rings carry a lot of symbolism simply by how you choose to wear it. When you wear a claddagh ring on your right hand ring finger facing you, it means you are in a relationship – the heart is caught between you and the crown (loyalty). Wear the ring facing out on the same finger and it means you are available, romantically speaking (the heart faces outward and is “free” to give). When you wear a claddagh ring on your left hand ring finger, it means you are engaged (facing out) or married (facing in). Of course, wearing a claddagh ring doesn’t require you to disclose your relationship status, you can simply wear it for the beauty and history! However you choose to wear them, claddagh rings are certain to endure in popularity for years to come.