A Symbol of Love

Claddagh ring

The Claddagh ring is a universal symbol of love, but how much did you know about it?  If you are like me, you recognize its universal design, and stop there.  Ah, but there’s an entire backstory that is fascinating.  I am lucky to have a mother who teaches me something new when I least expect it; at least that is what happened here.  As I mentioned in previous posts, my Mom and I took a special trip together to Ireland, and when we reached Galway, she asked me if I wanted a Claddagh ring.  She had studied their history and wanted to get rings for her daughters.  Maybe not the traditional giver/receiver relationship for this ring, but than again, why not?  But why, in Galway?  Well, the Claddagh rings were developed in the village of Claddagh located immediately outside the old walls of this city, and their popularity soon spread far and wide.

So first, a bit about the Claddagh rings

The Claddagh ring (Irish: fáinne Chladaigh) is a traditional Irish ring given as a token of love or worn as a wedding ring.  The ring originated in the fishing village of Claddagh, just outside the city of Galway, but now incorporated . The first ring was produced in the 17th century during the reign of Queen Mary II, though elements of the design are much older.  This community was fiercely independent and ruled by a “king”, the last of whom died in 1954. [source: Eyewitness Travel: Ireland]

The expression associated with these symbols in the giving of the ring was: “With my two hands I give you my heart, and crown it with my loyalty.”  As can the expression, “Let love and friendship reign forever” be another interpretation of the symbols.

How You Wear the Ring Says a Great Deal

on Shop Street

The way that a Claddagh ring is worn on the hand is intended to convey the wearer’s romantic availability, or lack thereof.  There are rules to be followed that start with the appropriate hand:

Right Hand

If the wearer has the ring on the right hand with the heart facing outward, this is a potential clue that the wearer is not romantically linked, but should the right person come along…. When the ring is turned around and the heart is pointed up their hand, the wearer may be subtly signaling that they are in a relationship, or their heart is taken.  The heart is pointing towards the hands and into the veins leading to the wearer’s heart.

Left Hand

another sign of romance

On the ring worn on the left hand with the heart facing outward shows the wearer is engaged; turned inward indicates the wearer is married.

Of course, the interested observer must account for the possibility that the ring wearer is clueless and just finds the ring pretty.  I had the pleasure of overhearing such a conversation in a pub when an interested fellow was trying to gauge how far his advances might take him, based on the position and direction of the ring worn by his intended target.  Not only did she not understand the rules of the Claddagh ring, she missed every signal he heaped on her.  I gave him a sympathetic look and a thumbs up for effort.

Possible origins

Most sources tie the Claddagh ring to the widespread group of “Fede Rings”.  The name “fede” comes from the Italian phrase mani in fede (“hands in trust” or “hands in faith”), and date from Roman times.  The rings are often cast as two clasped hands, symbolizing faith or trust.  They were popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe.

Some of the legends surrounding the origins of the ring [source: wikipediea]

a view down the river Corrib

Margaret Joyce, a woman of the Tribes of Galway, married a Spanish merchant named Domingo de Rona.  She followed him to Spain, but alas he died but willed her a large sum of money.  She returned to Ireland and, in 1596, married Oliver French, the mayor of Galway.  With the money she inherited from her first marriage, she funded the construction of bridges in Connacht.  As a reward for her good deeds, an eagle dropped the Claddagh ring into her lap, as a reward.

A prince who fell in love with a common maid. To convince her father his feelings were genuine and he had no intentions of “using” the girl, he designed a ring with hands representing friendship, a crown representing loyalty, and a heart representing love. He proposed to the maid with this ring, and after the father heard the explanation of the symbolism of the ring, he gave his blessing.

The Main Square

A man named Richard Joyce, a member of the Joyce clan and a native of Galway, left his town to work in the West Indies, intending to marry his love when he returned.  However, his ship was captured and he was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith, for whom he trained as a goldsmith.  When William III became king, he demanded the Moors release all British prisoners, and Robert Joyce was freed.  During his time with the Moors, he forged a ring as a symbol of his love for her. Upon his return, he presented her with the ring and they were married.

The ring was discovered in a sunken Spanish ship that sank off the Irish coast.  This ring was said to be of a heart and hands similar to the present day design, but it did not have the crown.  The crown was supposedly added by Queen Elizabeth much later.

For the record, the third legend seems the most likely, because Richard Joyce was indeed one of the initial jewelers of that time, and credited with creating some of the first rings.  However, the story, as far as I can tell remains legend, as I found nothing to substantiate it.

The tradition of the ring catches on

The Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849) caused many to emigrate from Ireland, and the popularity of the Claddagh ring spread to the United States and elsewhere as a result.

A “Fenian” Claddagh ring, without the crown, was later designed in Dublin for the Irish Republican community.  The ring minus the crown symbolizes their desire for freedom from the British crown.

one of the first

The Claddagh ring was the only Irish made ring worn by Queen Victoria and later by Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII.  Their rings were made by Dillons of Galway, which was granted a Royal Patent, and this tradition still continues.  Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco were presented with gifts embodying the Claddagh ring motif set in Connemara marble.

The earliest dated examples of Claddagh rings are stamped with “RI”, the mark of Richard Joyce, a Galway goldsmith circa 1689-1737, of the Joyce Tribe, one of the renowned “Fourteen Tribes of Galway” City.  According to Dr. Kurt Ticker in The Claddagh Ring – A West of Ireland Folklore Custom interest in Claddagh rings faded after Richard Joyce retired in the 1730s, and it was revived over a generation later, probably by George Robinson.  From then on a number of Galway goldsmiths and jewellers of Galway made Claddagh rings. Their early manufacture was by cuttle-bone mold casting, then the cire perdue or “lost wax” process up to the 1840s, when the process was commercialised.

If you happen to have a genuine Claddagh ring from Galway, many of the jewelers added their marks starting in the latter 17th century to the early 18th century.

Claddagh Jewelers and their Marks

RI Richard Joyce (Galway)

GR George Robinson (Galway)

AR Andrew Robinson (Galway)

NB Nicholas Burdge (Galway)

F Austin French (Galway)

JD RD WD Dillon

JS John Shadwell

Galway, Ireland

out and about

Galway is Ireland’s fourth largest city (population ~85,000) and among its fastest-growing.  It is located on the upper west coast of Ireland.  In Irish, Galway is also called Cathair na Gaillimhe (City of Galway).  The city takes its name from the Gaillimh river (River Corrib) that formed the western boundary of the earliest settlement, which was called Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (meaning “fort at the mouth of the Gaillimh”). The word Gaillimh means “stoney” as in “stoney river”.


A fort called Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (“Fort at the Mouth of the Gaillimh”) was constructed in 1124.  A small settlement eventually grew up around this fort.  During the Norman invasion in the 1230s, this fort was captured.  As the conquerers became increasingly gaelicised, the town merchants of the town, also known as the Tribes of Galway sought greater autonomy over the walled city, eventually securing complete control in December 1484. All the while, Galway endured difficult relations with its Irish neighbors as implied by a quote from the mayor stated “From the Ferocious O’Flahertys may God protect us”.  A law also forbade the native Irish (as opposed to Galway’s Hiberno-Norman citizens) unrestricted access into Galway, saying “neither O’ nor Mac shall strutte nor swagger through the streets of Galway” without permission. [source: Wikipedia]

A thatched roof house in Claddagh

During the Middle Ages, Galway was ruled by an oligarchy of fourteen merchant families (12 of Norman origin and 2 of Irish origin) – the “tribes” of Galway.  Under their leadership, the city thrived on international trade.  In the Middle Ages, it was the principal Irish port for trade with Spain and France.   The most famous reminder of those days is ceann an bhalla (the head of the wall), now known as the Spanish Arch, constructed around 1520.

Between the 16th and 17th centuries Galway remained loyal to the English crown for the most part, even during the Gaelic resurgence, perhaps for survival, yet by 1642 the city allied itself with the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. During the resulting Cromwellian conquest of Ireland Cromwellian forces captured the city after a nine month siege. At the end of the 17th century the city supported King James II of England (the Jacobites) against William of Orange and was captured by the Williamites after a brief siege. The great families of Galway were ruined, and the subsequent potato famine of 1840 -1845 resulted in city’s declined, with Galway not seeing sustained recovery until the great economic boom of the late twentieth century.

The city sometimes referred to as the ‘Bilingual Capital of Ireland has a strong association with Irish language and cultural traditions.  I can vouch for hearing more conversations in Gaelic here than anywhere else in Ireland, in fact the city has the largest percentage of Irish speakers in the country.  The city is well known for its ‘Irishness’, due to the fact that it has on its doorstep the Galway Gaeltacht (Irish speaking region).  A Gaeltacht is a district recognized by the government that has the Irish language as the predominate language.

Lynch's Castle

Galway is a compact city and easy to see on foot.  Shop Street, as the name implies is lined with shops and restaurants, it also has some of the oldest remaining architecture in the city, for example, probably the finest example of a medieval town house in Ireland, Lynch’s Castle is in Shop Street; it is now a branch of the Allied Irish Bank.  It was owned by the Lynch family, one of the fourteen tribes of Galway.

The Church of Ireland St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church is the largest Irish medieval church still functioning.  Its Roman Catholic counterpart, the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas was consecrated in 1965 and is a far larger, more imposing building constructed from limestone.

Not far from the cathedral stands the original quadrangle building of National University of Ireland, Galway erected in 1849 (during An Gorta Mór, the Great Famine). The university holds the UNESCO archive of spoken material for the Celtic languages.

Aside from a relatively small old town, I was surprised at the lack of historic buildings.  A Galwaian offered, upon overhearing my mother and I discussing this fact, that during the English occupation, little effort was made to preserve the historic buildings and he implied that likely they tried to stamp out any cultural ties, including, in this case, the architecture.  Given the lack of historical ties and the history of English occupation, I found it ironic that Galway is now a center for Irish culture.  This city can easily be explored in a day or two, and has a wonderful reputation for its food.  It is also host to a renown Oyster Festival that happens every September.  While we did not have the opportunity to do likewise, many visitors use Galway as a base to explore the surrounding environs.


I planned to offer a scrumptious oyster recipe, worthy of Galway’s oyster loving reputation, and well the Valentine’s Day theme, but I got sidetracked by a recipe adapted from a favorite cookbook: Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen.  While not a traditional recipe in historic terms, it is very popular at Darina’s Ballymaloe House restaurant.  I thought it the perfect dessert for Valentine’s Day, tasty but not too heavy.  If oysters are required, this recipe for oysters and leeks with Guinness Hollandaise is sure to please.

Irish Coffee Meringues



2 egg whites
4 ½ oz icing sugar (powdered sugar)
2 tsp instant coffee powder (not granules)


1 c whipped cream
2 T Irish whiskey

chocolate coated coffee beans are optional for a topping


Draw 2″ x 7″ circles on a sheet of parchment paper.

Put the egg whites into a bowl, and add all the powdered sugar except 2 tablespoons.  Whisk until the mixture stands in firm, dry peaks ~ 10 to 15 minutes.  Sift the coffee with the remaining sugar and carefully fold into the egg whites.

Spread the meringue carefully in the circles using a palatte knife (I used a butter knife).  Bake at VERY low temperatures (150°F /300°C) for 1 hour until crisp.The disks should get crisp.  Allow to cool.

Stir the whiskey into the whipped cream.  Sandwich the meringue discs together with the whiskey cream in the middle.  Pipe a bit of the cream on top and garnish with the coffee beans if desired.

Final notes:  I must say, I never intended to cover Ireland as thoroughly as I did, but my goodness, I found it funny that after my trip so much of what I was interested in seemed connected in Ireland in some way – from Halloween customs and Claddagh rings to St. Valentines.  In case you did not know, this saint is buried in Dublin.    On that note, I bid you and your loved ones a happy Valentine’s Day.

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20 comments for “A Symbol of Love

  1. February 9, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    My goodness, more about claddagh rings than even I knew 🙂 And re: your coverage of Ireland, it just goes to show you that, for a little country, we certainly do pack a punch!

  2. February 9, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    Missing the claddagh ring that got lost somewhere along the line. 🙁 This is a perfect expose for us though. A lot of folks wear it without knowing where it comes from!

  3. February 9, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    Such fascinating info on claddagn rings and Galway (maybe we can travel there soon)! And the Irish coffee meringues sound so yummy!

  4. February 9, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    A friend of mine had given me a ring with a similar design except that it’s three movable rings combined into one. I’m glad to know the meaning of them. It makes wearing the ring a little more special.

  5. February 10, 2010 at 1:56 AM

    What fascinating stories around the Ring! hahaha,…

    Now, I know what it all means,…Those Irish cofee meringues sound delicious!

  6. February 10, 2010 at 9:06 AM

    Very interesting history about the beautiful claddagh ring. I love learning something new. I also love Irish Coffee–thanks for the delicious recipe! A great cup of warmth on a cold evening!

  7. February 10, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    The post brought tears to my eyes. Galway was such a beautiful time with my family – and seeing the streets again just made me yearn for it. My daughter’s boyfriend bought her a claddagh ring one year before we went to Galway. she had researched carefully and knew the meanings and loved it. It was extra special to be at the place where they originated. And thosemeringues – oh my how grand.

  8. February 10, 2010 at 5:35 PM

    I knew where it came from but you have educated me on the conventions for wearing it. I love the meaning, ” with my two hands I give you my heart and crown it with my loyalty.” You can’t get more romantic than that!

  9. February 10, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    Never heard about this ring, so you teach me another thing about Ireland. I love what it symbolizes and it’s interesting that it has different meanings depending on how you wear.

  10. admin
    February 10, 2010 at 7:36 PM

    Spud – that you do, pack a punch I mean. Ireland already has me planning my next trip!

    Natasha – They are delicious

    Jenn – Sweet

    Sophie – Glad to help

    Lisa – My pleasure and the meringues are very tasty indeed!

    Claudia – Wow, that truly sounds like a special trip. Those are the kind you cherish forever!

    Wizzy – Nice to reciprocate – I’ve been learning loads from you.

    Zerrin – I know, talk about the unspoken language of love.

  11. February 11, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    Those rings were so popular when I was in high school and I never had one! Must go to Galway. I think they are beautiful and perfect for Valentine’s Day. I know some think Valentine’s is a cheesy hallmark holiday but I think its so special. I love the thought of a special day to recognize those that you love and it doesn’t have to be about a partner, but friends and family too! Those meringues are perfect valentines treats!

  12. February 11, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    It’s so wonderful to know the history of this ring. I’ve seen it worn by many of my friends, and I will have to share with them the significance of this ring and how to wear it!

  13. February 11, 2010 at 3:03 PM

    I have a Claddagh ring but haven’t worn it in years. I knew about the importance of the direction of the ring on your finger, but I didn’t know the significance of left vs right hand. Good to know!

  14. February 11, 2010 at 8:34 PM

    Why do I keep thinking about Lord of the Rings? This ring talk is making me think hobbits. Heh.
    Never heard about Claddagh rings until now, but love the new information I’m getting!

  15. February 13, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    All these mentions of love almost make me feel romantic and sentimental. Almost. 🙂 Would it make a bad person out of me if I said I would rather have a box of these Irish coffee meringues than a Claddagh ring? I have way more than 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s in the fridge. This recipe needs to be quadrupled. At least.

  16. February 13, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    I too had once, but it was stolen, but its an excuse to go back and get a new one, a symbol of more than love to me, go to the coast have a nice bowl of chowder, drink some ‘real’ beer and whiskey, all the while I kick back and drift into a strange mystical trance and forget to make my plane back home, and no one will ever see me again…only stories told down through centuries of the American chef E with ties to the Akin clan of Dublin and Scotland…maybe she was lost in the mist of the morning tides off the Emerald Isle, or in the moors of North Yorkshire, as the hounds of Baskerville howl into the night… Oh I long for thee; thine country of my fathers…

    They would however remember my wild tales and good southern cooking along the way, so just follow that trail…

  17. February 13, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    Love Ireland. Love Merignues….and Love your stories.

  18. February 13, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    The Iris meringues sound delicious! I am a huge coffee fan :)It is the first time I heard about that ring…. very interesting!

  19. admin
    February 15, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    Gastro – I agree with you, admittedly Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark Holiday, but its still nice to make a special day of it with a loved one(s).

    Christine – great, I had a great time researching the history.

    Lisa – Indeed!

    Sophia – You know, I kinda felt the same, Lord of the Rings indeed. Should have added a video snippet. =)

    Leela – Bah humbug indeed, isn’t the best way to the heart through the stomach, so you have something there. Between the meringues and your lollipops, I think we’re good to go.

    ChefE – You definitely need to go back – I was amazed at all the variations from simple to dramatic jewel incrusted confections. Wow! Let me know when this post comes up as I’ll be bracking out my Jameson.

    Kitchen Butterfly – thanks!

    Erica – Sweet, happy to share as I learn so much from you.

  20. February 26, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    Thanks for the absorbing read! Alright playtime is over and back to school work.

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