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The Official Claddagh Ring History

The Claddagh Ring is a uniquely Irish traditional ring attributed to Galway silversmith Richard Joyce.

The oldest ring still in existence today is a Richard Joyce ring dating back to 1700. These Irish rings have since become world famous.

The word 'Claddagh' is often misspelled.

You might see it spelled as Claddaugh or Cladaugh, Claddah or Cladah ring or even Clada ring, although those that have been to Galway will know that it is associated with the Claddagh, a part of town that used to be a small and very poor fishing village.

Shop front of Dillon's Jewellers, the oldest maker of the ring, Quay Street, Galway, Ireland.

On these pages we will give you lots of information about the rings, dealing with some myths, celebrating the legends and oral history but also offering some available evidence on the rings' history.

This page features an interview with Jonathan Margetts, proprietor of the oldest Irish jewellers specialising in Claddagh jewellery, seen on the photo above outside the shop on Galway's Quay Street.

Jonathan Margetts, proprietor of the Original Claddagh Ring shop in Galway, meets Susanna for lunch and talks to us about the 'official' history of the ring as he knows it.

Jonathan, the Claddagh ring is now world-famous. Do you think people generally are aware of its' history these days?

I think people that have been to Galway definitely are. It's one of the things Galway is known for internationally. And anyone who has been to Ireland will be aware of it, too, although they might not know the full history.

Having lunch with Jonathan Margetts the proprietor of Dillon's jewellers on Quay Street, Galway, Ireland.

I had lunch with Jonathan Margetts and brought my daughter along for the chat.

But there are so many misspellings of the word Claddagh which leads me to believe that there are an awful lot of people who have never heard of it's origins. Some of the misspellings I have seen include Claddaugh, Cladaugh, Claddah, and even completely simplified, Clada ring.

Jonathan, how reliable is James Hardiman (author of History of Galway, 1820) as a source about the origins of the Claddagh Rings?

I think Hardiman is pretty reliable. All the local historians quote him. The most accepted version of the history of the ring is now the story of Richard Joyce as the inventor of it, as quoted in Hardiman. There is some documentation, too, to back up the story.

Tell us the story as you know it, we will call it the 'official' history of the ring.

Richard Joyce, an Irishman, went on a sea voyage in and around 1680. The boat was captured by corsair pirates and the passengers were robbed and then sold into slavery in Barbary.

This was not a rare event by any means. You have to understand that in those days, corsair pirates caused real trouble for the English Empire. They were always present in the waters around the British Isles.

But Richard Joyce was lucky. He was bought by a humane master, a goldsmith, who taught him the trade. Richard Joyce worked for him for 14 years. Then, in 1694, a deal was struck that saw a lot of slaves that were subjects of the English Crown, bought free. Richard Joyce was one of those few lucky enough to be able to return home. The story goes that his master did not want him to leave because he appreciated his work so much.

But Richard was now a free man, and determined to go back to Ireland. He settled in Galway and opened up shop as a silversmith. He brought with him design ideas he had seen abroad, among them the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the ring design. A ring with the symbols of hands and heart had long been used in the Mediterranean as a loyalty ring. Richard Joyce embellished it with the crown, adding to love and friendship the quality of loyalty.

Antique street sign in the ring museum at Dillon's Jewellers on Quay Street, Galway, Ireland.

The shop on Quay Street has a small museum of Claddagh rings and associated items in a back room, containing this old street sign.

Do you think Richard Joyce became rich making the ring?

I doubt that the rings were the main part of his business. Mainly I think he worked for very rich patrons, such as the Protestant Church.

Galway in those days was a very different town. It was Protestant. It had some very rich people, traders and business people. Mixed nationalities, too. There were Spanish and Italian traders.

Some Italian traders for example, settled in Lombard Street. The wine business was big then, and the port brought money into the town.

But the majority of people were incredibly poor. They lived side by side the rich, even along the narrow streets of Galway’s city centre which were all residential then.

Back then, there was no jewellery retail as we know it today. You couldn’t walk into a shop and buy a ring, for example. You had to commission someone to make it for you. All the rings were bespoke.

A crucifix made by Richard Joyce, creator of the Claddagh.

A Richard Joyce made crucifix at Galway City Museum.

Richard Joyce was dependent on such commissions for rings which probably came mostly from very rich patrons.

Inventor of the traditional Galway ring Richard Joyce made this reliquary.

Other Articles About Claddagh Rings

But first and foremost Richard Joyce made a lot of chalices (like the one above at Galway city Museum) and crosiers  and other religious paraphernalia for the Church. See some examples on the photos here of a crucifix and to the left of a reliquary, both by Richard Joyce, both taken at Galway City Museum. That’s what he was known for. But a couple of his original Claddagh rings still exist. They bear his initials, R.J.

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Warmest regards from Colm and Susanna.

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