The Origin and Meaning of the Claddagh Ring, Connections to The Claddagh and Galway Goldsmith Traditions

Claddagh Ring Meaning

The Claddagh ring (Irish: fáinne Chladaigh) is a traditional Irish ring which represents love, friendship, and loyalty – the heart represents love, the hands represent friendship and the crown represents loyalty.

The Claddagh ring can be worn in a number of different ways to denote the wearers relationship status. We explain the rules here.

The Origin of The Claddagh Ring

The Claddagh ring as we know it today is thought to have evolved from a Fede ring, which features the motif of the clasped hands. Referred to in Italian as, Mani in Fede, or hands in faith, its origins stretch back to Roman times.

Read more about the ancient origins of the fede ring and the fascinating story about the discovery of a fede ring from a Spanish Armada shipwreck off the County Antrim coast.

Claddagh Ring as a Wedding Ring

The distinctive elements of the Claddagh are represented in this diamond ring dated 1706, on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The inscription on the inside, ‘Dudley and Katherine united 26 Mar 1706’ obviously denotes a marriage. By this time, the design of the fede ring had evolved into what we recognize today as the Claddagh ring, to include the heart at the center, flanked by the the hands and topped by the crown.

The Claddagh Ring and Galway – Why is The Ring Called a Claddagh Ring

The Claddagh Ring, with its iconic heart, hands and crown, has been made in Galway at least as far back as the early 1700’s. In 1906, William Dillon, a Galway jeweler published an article in the Galway Archaeological and Historical Journal entitled The Claddagh Ring, in which he remarked that the Claddagh tradition stretched, ‘roughly from the Aran Isles on the West, all through Connemara and Joyce’s Country and then eastwards and southwards for not more than 12 miles’.

It was not until the middle of the 19th Century that the ring became commonly known as a Claddagh Ring. The origin of the name may be traced back to a popular Irish travel book published in London in the 1840’s. The authors, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carter Hall wrote about the people of Claddagh as follows;

They have many peculiar customs. One is worthy of special note. The wedding ring is an heirloom in the family. It is regularly transferred (by a mother) to her daughter first married and so on to their descendants. These rings are largely of solid gold and not infrequently cost from two to three pounds each

Mr and Mrs Halls Tour of Ireland, London 1841-1843

Certainly, by the early 1900’s, the Claddagh ring was well established as a tradition and was being produced in quantity by the various Galway jewelers, including Fallons, Frenchs and Dillons. In 1900, T. Dillon and Sons were advertising in the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Journal not only Claddagh rings but also ‘Original Claddagh brooches, bangles and scarf pins’

The Oldest Claddagh Ring
The Oldest Claddagh Ring

Galway Goldsmiths

Rich Celtic Jewelry Traditions

Ireland has a long history of metallurgy. These earliest Irish metal workers have left an extraordinary legacy. In a tradition which stretches back to the The Bronze Age, the Celts proved themselves to be master at metal work. They created exceptional gold pieces for personal adornment or fro ritual purposes. Many of these treasures were buried with tribal leaders of high status or created as votive offerings to their pagan gods.A wonderful example of this art form is the Broighter Hoard found in County Derry.

The Gold Broighter Collar. A masterpiece of ancient Celtic jewelry.
The Gold Broighter Collar. A masterpiece of ancient Celtic jewelry.

The metalworking tradition continued through into the early Christian period. Works of ecclesiastical art crafted in gold and silver, adorned with gemstones are famous throughout the world for their artistic and technical excellence.

Early Goldsmith Traditions in The City of Galway

We do not know for sure how much influence the Celtic jewelry traditions from the early Irish monastic world had on Galway, but it is certain that medieval Galway had an established jewelry-making tradition. The first reference to a goldsmith in Galway is in a by-law from 1500 which refers to a goldsmith by the name of Donill O’Nolan. Another reference to the trade is evidenced by a rubbing taken from a gravestone gravestone dated 1641. The detail of three hammers is notable for its absence from any Irish heraldry reference.

During the medieval period, Galway goldsmiths were renowned for the quality of their silverware. In particular, church chalices. Between 1683 and 1737, a total of twenty eight chalices bearing a maker’s mark of Galway origin have been identified. Another seventy chalices associated with Galway, but not bearing maker’s marks, are attributed to Galway goldsmiths.

The Tribes of Galway

Galway is often referred to as The City of The Tribes. This is in reference to the fourteen families who dominated the political and commercial life of the city between the 13th and 18th centuries. Much of the religious silverware produced in Galway was commissioned by these prominent Galway families and donated to religious institutions. Twelve of the fourteen Galway Tribes are represented in memorial inscriptions on these ecclesiastical chalices, namely, Kirwan, D’Arcy, Bodkin, Skerrett, Lynch, Joyce, Browne, Font, French, Deane, Martin and Blake with Morris and Athy the only absentees.

Galway Hallmarks

Prior to 1784 and the establishment of the Irish Assay Mark, Galway goldsmiths had their own mark of origin. This mark is identified by an anchor. This town stamp was usually accompanied by the initials of the maker. From 1683 until 1737, four of Galway’s goldsmiths marked their ware accordingly;

  • Barthelomew Fallon, 1683 – 1718
  • Richard Joyce, 1691 – 1737
  • Mark Fallon, 1714 – 1731
  • Thomas Lynch, 1720 – 1724

There seems to have been a connection between Richard Joyce and Richard Fallon. Not only did they make pieces at the same time for the same customers, but several pieces are known to have a stamping from both Joyce and Fallon. Two notable examples are The Fitzgearld-Darsy Chalice dated 1719 and silver tankard dated 1720, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Detail from a Chalice dating from 1718 and hallmarked by Bartholomew Fallon.

In 1784, an act was passed requiring all Irish goldsmiths to register with the Dublin Assay Office, which had been established by royal charter in 1637. Between 1874 and 1817, a total of twenty six goldsmiths from County Galway registered their names with the Dublin Goldsmiths Company.

Richard Joyce, Master Goldsmith

The goldsmith most associated with the Claddagh ring is Richard Joyce, a native of Galway, who learnt his trade in unusual circumstances in Algeria. Hardiman’s History of Galway offers the following concise account of his early years;

Several individuals of this name have long felt grateful to the memory of William III from the following circumstance, on the accession of that monarch to the throne of England, one of the first acts of his reign was to send an ambassador to Algiers, to demand the immediate release of all British subjects detained there in slavery, the dey and council, intimidated, reluctantly compiled with his demand. Among those released, was a young man of the name of Joyce, a native of Galway, who, fourteen years before, was captured on his passage to the West Indies, by an Algerine Corsire; on his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk, who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and who observed his slave, Joyce to be tractable and ingenious, instructed him in his trade, in which he speedily became and adept. The Moor as soon as he heard of his release, offered him, in case he should remain, his only daughter in marriage, and with her, half his property, but all these, with other tempting and advantageous proposals, Joyce resolutely declined; on his return to Galway he married, and followed the business of a goldsmith with considerable success.

Hardiman’s History of Galway, 1820

Joyce settled back into life in Galway, residing on Shop Steet in the center of the walled town. He was clearly successful in his trade, as he later purchased the Rahoon Estate from Colonel Whaley, one of Cromwell’s officers. Joyce firmly established himself as part of the city’s mercantile class. Two of his daughters were married into two of Galway’s most prominent families; the Lynches and the Frenches. Both families members of the Tribes of Galway.


How To Wear Your Claddagh Ring

Not sure how to wear your Claddagh Ring? We go through all the different ways you can wear your Claddagh ring and the meaning behind the rules.

Read

The History of The Claddagh Ring

We take a look at the legend of Richard Joyce and the history of The Claddagh Ring.

Read

The History of Claddagh Village and Galway City

We take a look at the fascinating history and traditions of The Claddagh Village and City of Galway.

Click me!