The traditional Irish ring was given as a token of friendship, love, or marriage. The design and customs associated with it originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside the city of Galway, Ireland. The ring was first produced in the 17th century during the reign of William and Mary, though elements of the design date to the late Roman period.
The Claddagh’s distinctive design features two hands clasping a heart, and usually surmounted by a crown. The elements of this symbol are often said to correspond to the qualities of love (the heart), friendship (the hands), and loyalty(the crown). A “Fenian” Claddagh ring, without a crown, was later designed in Dublin. Claddagh rings, with or without the crown (most commonly with a crown), have come to denote pride in Irish heritage, while continuing to be symbols of love or marriage.
Claddagh rings may be used as friendship or relationship rings depending on the intention of wearer and, in the case of a gift, of the giver. The way that a Claddagh ring is worn on the hand is usually intended to convey the wearer’s relationship status:
- On the right hand with the heart facing outward, the wearer is single and may be looking for love.
- On the right hand but turned inwards, the wearer is in a relationship, or their heart has been “captured”.
- On the left hand with the heart facing outward, the wearer is engaged.
- On the left hand but turned inwards, the wearer is married.
History and Origins
The Claddagh ring belongs to a group of European finger rings called “fede rings”. The name “fede” comes from the Italian phrase mani in fede (“hands [joined] in faith” or “hands [joined] in loyalty”). These rings date from Roman times, when the gesture of clasped hands was a symbol of pledging vows, and they were used as love and marriage rings in medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Fede rings are cast in the form of two clasped hands, symbolizing faith, trust, or “plighted troth”. Nowadays, the Claddagh ring is seen as a distinctively Irish variation on the fede ring, while the hands, heart, and crown motif was used in England in the early 18th century. It is generally accepted that the ring is directly descended from the fede ring.
Galway has produced Claddagh rings continuously since at least 1700,but the name “Claddagh ring” was not used before the 1840s.
An early written description of this kind of ring was published in 1843, along with an illustration. Ireland, its Scenery, Character etc. by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carter Hall has a section about the Claddagh fishing community and their wedding rings. In a footnote, the Halls mention a “strong analogy” with older gimmel rings, despite the “rudeness of their [the Galway rings’] construction”.
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