Celtic jewelry has a beautiful variety of different pieces, but the Claddagh ring is one of the most recognizable. The Claddagh ring, or fáinne Chladaigh in Gaelic, is associated with Ireland and its people, but it can have meaning for people of all cultures and customs.
You will be able to recognize a Claddagh ring by its three distinctive symbols: the band, the heart and the crown. The band is finished with two gently cupped hands holding a heart, with an intricate crown resting above the heart.
While historians have traced the original design for the Claddagh ring back to a specific place in Ireland, today you can find a wide variety of Claddagh ring styles. Some rings feature a heart made of a precious stone. Some rings have an intricate band with more Celtic imagery. How a Claddagh ring should look is really up to the wearer.
While Claddagh rings have a long, symbolic history, they have become popular for several uses today. Some people even love the idea of using a Claddagh ring as an engagement ring or a wedding band. If you think this piece of Celtic jewelry is the right choice for your intended, keep in mind the most popular metals for wedding rings. Brides and grooms favor the following metals for their wedding bands:
- White gold: 47.6 percent
- Platinum: 28.8 percent
- Gold: 11.6 percent
- Rose gold: 3.6 percent
- Palladium: 5.9 percent
- Other: 2.5 percent
You can find a Claddagh ring — or have one made — in all these different types of metals.
If you are thinking about popping the question with a Claddagh ring, selecting a wedding band with the Claddagh design or simply curious about this ring, we have you covered. Here is our complete guide to Claddagh history, and the meaning behind this timeless Irish symbol.
The History of the Claddagh Ring
The Claddagh ring is named for a Celtic fishing village of the same name. The ancient village of Claddagh was located in Galway, Ireland. The word “claddagh” is now synonymous with the ring that bears its name, but the word is derived from the Gaelic word “cladach,” which translates roughly to “stony beach.”
While the exact origins of the ring are unknown, the legend surrounding the ring is a fantastic tale. The Joyces were a prominent family living in Claddagh during the 1600s. The men of the family made their living by fishing. According to legend, a group of pirates captured the men while they were fishing one day. The pirate ship took them to the northern coast of Africa, where they were sold into slavery.
Richard, the youngest family member to be captured, was devastated because he had just fallen in love. Taken far away on a ship and sold into slavery, he didn’t know if he would ever see her again. The story sounds like something straight out of a classic romance like The Princess Bride.
As a slave, Richard was set to work in a goldsmith shop. Each day of his captivity, the young man would take a small piece of gold and keep it. When he had enough, he fashioned a ring: the first Claddagh ring. Throughout his enslavement, he harbored the hope he would be able to find his home again and give the ring to the woman he loved.
Richard Joyce spent 14 years in slavery, and won release in 1689. After so long away from home, he had no idea if his beloved would still be waiting for him, but she was. He gave her the ring as a sign of his devotion. Many of the earliest Claddagh rings bore the initials “R.J.” This shows at least someone with the same initials as Richard Joyce likely created the ring, though how much of his legendary story is true is unsure.
An even more mythic version of the tale involves Margaret Joyce. Supposedly, an eagle dropped a ring — the first Claddagh ring — into her lap. Margaret took it to mean the ring was a sign from the heavens. As fantastic as pirates and separated lovers sound, the story of Richard Joyce is more likely than an eagle carrying the first Claddagh ring.
While the three features that make up the Claddagh ring are unique to the Irish design, not all of the motifs are completely original. Rings with a clasped-hand motif can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome. Rings featuring a pair of clasped hands are known as fede rings, or faith rings. The design endured beyond ancient Rome to become popular in Europe prior to the creation of the Claddagh ring. People would exchange faith rings as a sign of affection, much as many people do with Claddagh rings today.
The Claddagh ring began to appear in America in the 18th century. Many Irish people were beginning to emigrate to America, and they brought with them their culture and traditions, including the Claddagh ring.
While people give and wear Claddagh rings for many occasions today — most often exchanged between lovers — the Irish tradition views this piece of jewelry as a wedding ring. Traditionally, mothers would pass on their Claddagh rings to their daughters when it came time for them to marry. There are still families today that view Claddagh rings as family heirlooms.
The Meaning Behind the Claddagh Ring
The Claddagh ring has centuries of history, but today it symbolizes three things: friendship, loyalty and love. Those symbols can mean anything to the wearer. Perhaps you wear a ring to symbolize the bond of friendship you share with someone. Maybe it is a symbol of your loyalty to your partner. It could also be a signal that you are in love. You can be married, single or engaged when you wear a Claddagh ring. The beautiful thing about jewelry is that you get to decide what the piece means to you.
Each of the three motifs included in the Claddagh ring has its own meaning.
- Heart: The heart is the central feature of the ring. As you might suspect, the heart represents love.
- Crown: The crown is a traditional symbol of royalty. In this case, the crown is a symbol of loyalty.
- Hands: The hands that come together to hold the heart and the crown above represent friendship.
The three motifs can be viewed as a cohesive symbol for affection and commitment to a relationship, either platonic or romantic. The Claddagh ring meaning can be as simple as that, or far more personal, depending on who gave you the ring.
How to Wear Your Claddagh Ring
The Claddagh ring bears a beautiful design that can be worn any way you want, but if you are interested in adhering to tradition, there are a few rules of thumb to follow.
- Left hand: If you are wearing your Claddagh ring on your left ring finger with the bottom of the heart pointing toward you, you are sending the message that you are married.
- Right hand: A Claddagh ring on the right hand is generally reserved for people who are not engaged or married. If you are single and open to the idea of a relationship, wear a Claddagh ring on your ring finger with the heart pointing outward. The message is clear: Your heart is open to love. If you are dating someone, whether casually or seriously, you can opt to wear your ring on your right ring finger with the heart pointing toward you, to show someone has a claim on your heart.
You always have the option to wear your Claddagh ring on any of your fingers, pointing any way you want. Maybe you’re married, and you like how the ring looks on your index finger. Maybe you are single, but you like how the ring looks on your left ring finger. Feel free to play around with your ring. How to wear a Claddagh ring is up to you — there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
The Claddagh Ring in Pop Culture
The Claddagh ring is a timeless symbol of love, as well as friendship and loyalty. Since it first appeared in the 17th century, the ring has only grown in popularity. Lovers, spouses, families and friends have been putting on Claddagh rings for centuries. This piece of Celtic jewelry has become an iconic and nearly universally recognizable symbol. Here are just a few ways the Claddagh ring has become a part of popular culture.
- Royalty and politicians: You know something has entered the realms of true popularity when you spot it on royalty. Queen Victoria of England came to visit Ireland in 1849. When she left the Emerald Isle, the queen came back with a Claddagh ring. She passed down her love of the design to her son and his wife. King Edward VII and his wife Queen Alexandra both wore Claddagh rings. Grace Kelly, the princess of Monaco, and her husband Prince Rainier also wore the design, albeit not in the form of a ring. The royal pair visited Galway in 1962. As a gift, they received a brooch and cuff links bearing the Claddagh design.
Other powerful political figures have also worn Claddagh rings. President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy visited Galway, where they received a matched set of Claddagh rings. Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill also wore Claddagh rings at some point.
- Celebrities: Claddagh rings have also popped up on the fingers of Hollywood celebrities. Notably, Julia Roberts has worn a Claddagh ring for years, though it is unconfirmed who gave her the ring. Actor Tate Donovan and Jennifer Aniston gave one another Claddagh rings during their relationship. Jude Law also gave Sienna Miller one. Whether you are famous or not, love is universal.
While not all celebrity relationships last, the Claddagh ring is still an enduring symbol. Walt Disney wore a Claddagh ring during his life, and today his statue at Disneyland bears a Claddagh ring.In addition to film and TV stars, famous musicians have donned the ring. Jim Morrison from the Doors wore a Claddagh ring from his girlfriend, Patricia Kennealy. U2 singer Bono has also worn a Claddagh ring.
- Film and television: Claddagh rings have also played a role on both the big and small screens. The Claddagh ring played a big role in the 1990s cult favorite TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The heroic title character received a Claddagh ring from her vampire boyfriend Angel shortly before saying “I love you.” The ring even made an appearance in the soap opera Days of Our Lives.
The iconic ring has also been seen in movies like Ladder 49 and The Doors, which depicted the real-life exchange of Claddagh rings between Jim Morrison and Patricia Kennealy.
Other Pieces of Classic Celtic Jewelry
If you love the Celtic history and design behind the Claddagh ring, there are other pieces of classic Celtic jewelry you might enjoy.
- Celtic cross: The Celtic cross looks like a traditional Christian cross, but it bears a circular piece that rests at the center of the cross. The arms of the cross can be equal in length, or the vertical bar can be longer. What exactly the center circle represents is up for debate. Some believe the center represents the rising sun, while others equate the circle with Jesus Christ. Whatever the symbolism, the cross can make a beautiful piece of religious jewelry, whether on a necklace or in some other form.
- Celtic knot: The Celtic knot comes in a number of different forms, including the trinity knot, the spiral knot and the love knot. The intricate design can mean many different things, but is generally equated with the Holy Trinity of Christianity. The spiral knot represents both death and rebirth. The symbolism of the love knots is clear. The intertwined symbols stand for the love two people share. The knots can be incorporated into many different kinds of jewelry.
- Celtic torc: The Celtic torc is generally worn around the neck. A Celtic torc is generally in the shape of a band with a small opening in the front. This metal band usually bears careful design work. The bands are usually designed with some flexibility, so the wearer can bend the torc to find the right fit.
- Triskele: A triskele is a curvy design that features three different whorls symbolizing the land, the sea and the sky. Others interpret the three symbols to mean past, present and future or life, death and rebirth. You can find this design in various pieces of jewelry, including earrings, necklaces and brooches.