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
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:
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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 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]
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.
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. ♥