The earliest known Claddagh Wedding Ring is dated 1700 and was made by Galway silversmith Richard Joyce. Since then, Claddagh rings have come to fame world-wide.
In this article we examine what is fact and what is legend in relation to the ring's history.
The word ‘Claddagh' is often misspelled by people who are not familiar with its history, we have seen the word misspelled as Claddaugh, Cladaugh, Claddah or Cladah ring.
These rings are often used as wedding bands or engagement rings, but can be worn by anyone.
A couple of the old Richard Joyce rings still exist, as well as other silver items made by him, and we heard that a tiny one of those went up for auction recently and fetched some 12.000 Euros.
Richard Joyce is the man who, according to oral local history, invented the Claddagh Wedding Ring. The story goes that he was captured by pirates, spending many years in slavery in Barbary before being freed through intervention of the British Crown, eventually settled in Galway bringing the design for the Claddagh ring with him from motifs he would have seen abroad.
The symbol of the ring has become synonymous for Galway. On the photo above see the oldest Irish jewellers in existence, T. Dillon and Sons who specialise in Claddagh rings.
But actually, the story is quite plausible, certainly in the sense that Barbary pirates really did capture many people around that time who were sold on as slaves, many to work on galley ships, but some struck lucky to be bought by good masters. A few were able to even have a career in Barbary, and to earn substantial amounts of money, in some rare cases slaves were able to buy themselves out. Barbary pirates were much feared by the Crown.
In one instance, pirates raided an entire coastal village, Baltimore in County Cork, enslaving all the inhabitants. There was a lot of differing opinions among officials and politicians as to how pirates should be dealt with and policies changed a number of times. But it is historically correct that slaves were bought out by the Crown on a couple of occasions until politicians decided that this only encouraged pirates to capture even more English subjects. So, long story short, theoretically this could have been a true story. It sure makes for a captivating legend that is sure to rouse emotions...
Crucifix by Richard Joyce who is credited with the invention of the Claddagh Ring.
Fidelity rings with the hands and heart symbol had been used in other places, especially around the Mediterranean. It’s possible that he saw them there, and added in the crown symbol...
But let’s not forget a simple fact. Galway had a lot of trade with the Mediterranean at the time, with Italy and Spain in particular. Some Mediterranean traders settled in Galway. It was quite a multicultural place. The creator of the Claddagh Wedding Ring, let’s assume it was this Richard Joyce, could have simply seen fidelity rings that made it to Galway on the hands of rich traders. Back then, owning these rings was very much an upper class privilege.
In the olden days, these fidelity rings (Fede) like the antique one seen above were not so much wedding bands, as wedding or pre-nuptial gifts by the bride to her man. Same as that, all the early rings containing the crown symbol are deemed to have been sized for men. Therefore, it is possible that the same Mediterranean tradition was adopted by the leading rich Anglo Norman families in Galway that lived side by side the Spanish and Italians.
Antique Claddagh ring at the Claddagh Ring Museum at the back of Dillon's Jewellers on Quay Street in Galway.
But there is some evidence also that suggests that the so called Claddagh rings are not exclusive to Galway. Just because the oldest surviving ring is by Richard Joyce, is that enough proof to suggest he did indeed pioneer the design?
In fact, there are three other very early Claddagh wedding rings, from
in and around 1700. They are from Kinsale where the symbol was known and
used as well, and not only by silversmiths. It has been found on other
antiques from Kinsale such as on a piece of furniture. Kinsale, of
course, was a sea port too, sharing some of the same trading links as
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Copyright 2014 by Colm Sweeney and Susanna Lambeck www.enjoy-irish-culture.com