The Claddagh Story
NOUN: A ring with a raised design of two hands clasping a crowned heart,
usually given as a token of love or friendship.
ETYMOLOGY: After Claddagh, a fishing village and suburb of Galway." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth
An original symbol of the Galway town of Claddagh,
Ireland, (pronounced “cla” as in “class” and “ddagh” pronounced “da” as in
“dad”) was first fashioned into the traditional ring back in the
17th Century during the reign of Mary II.
Legend has it that an Irish young man, Richard
Joyce, bound for the West Indian slave plantations - no doubt
the Irish Caribbean island of Montserrat - was kidnapped
himself in rough seas by a band of Mediterranean pirates and
sold to a Moorish goldsmith who over the many long years of his
exile helped him perfect the skills of a master craftsman.
When in 1689 King William III negotiated the return of the
slaves, Joyce returned to Galway - despite, it said, the Moor's
offer of the daughter's hand in marriage and a princely dowry of
half of all his wealth.
Back in Ireland a young women had never stopped
faithful waiting for her true love to return. Upon which time
when he presented her with the now famous Royal Claddagh gold
ring - a symbol of their enduring love. Two hands to represent
their friendship, the crown to signify their loyalty and lasting
fidelity, and the sign of the heart to symbolise their eternal
love for each other.
They soon married, never
to be separated again.
"Several individuals of this name have
long felt grateful to the memory of William III. from the following
circumstance, on the accession of that monarch to the throne of England. One
of the first acts of his reign was to send an ambassador to Algiers to
demand the immediate release of all the British subjects detained there in
slavery, the dey and council, intimidated, reluctnatly complied with this
demand. Among those released, was a young man of the name of Joyes, a native
of Galway, who, fourteen years before, was captured on his passage to the
West Indies, by an Algerine Corsair; on his arrival at Algiers, he was
purchased by a wealthy Turk who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and
who observing his slave, Joyes, to be tractable and ingenious, instructed
him in his trade in which he speedily became an adept. The Moor, as soon as
he heard of his release, offered him, in case he should remain, his only
daughter in marriage, and with her, half his property, but all these, with
other tempting and advantageous proposals, Joyes resolutely declined; on his
return to Galway he married, and followed the business of a goldsmith with
considerable success" James Hardiman, The
History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway.
1838, Guide Through Ireland
"Connected with the trade of Galway, we cannot omit
the Claddagb, a large village lying on the opposite side of the
harbour, and apart from the town. It contains innumerable little
streets and lanes of cabins, all grouped and huddled together.
About 1500 fishermen, with their wives and families, reside
here; and, beyond the sale of their fish, hold little
intercourse with the town's people, intermarry among themselves,
and, as regards fishing and pecuniary matters, are governed by
their own byelaws. The boats, great and small, connected with
this fishery, and including, the whole coast of the county of
Galway, are said to exceed a thousand. Still, owing to the
prejudices, ignorance, and total want of system, among the
fishermen, the town and surrounding country are very irregularly
supplied." - James Fraser; "Guide Through Ireland:
Descriptive of its scenery, towns, seats, antiquities, etc. with
various statistical tables also various statistical tables also
an outline of its mineral structure, and a brief views of its
botany. With a map, and engravings."; William Curry, Jun.
and Company Samuel Holdsworth, London, Fraser and Co. Edinburgh;
Dublin; 1838; pp234-5.
1882, The Letters of "Norah" on her Tour Through
"The Claddagh was a great disappointment to me. I
heard that it was not safe to venture into it alone. I got up
early and had sunshine with me when I strolled through the
Claddagh. I saw no extreme poverty there. Most of the houses
were neatly whitewashed; all were superior to the huts among the
ruins at Athenry. The people were very busy, very comfortably
clothed, and, in a way, well-to-do looking. Some of the houses
were small and windowless, something the shape of a beehive, but
not at all forlornly squalid. They make celebrated fleecy
flannel here in Claddagh. They make and mend nets. They fish. I
saw some swarthy men of foreign look, in seamen's clothes,
standing about. You will see beauty here of the swarthy type,
accompanied by flashing black eyes and blue black hair, but I
saw lasses with lint white locks also in the Claddagh. The
testimony of all here is that the Claddagh people are a quiet,
industrious, temperate and honest race of people. I am inclined
to believe that myself. It is a pretty large district and I
wandered through it without hearing one loud or one profane
word. I was agreeably disappointed in the Claddagh. Claddagh has
a church and large school of its own.
There is difference perceptible to me, but hardly
describable between the Galway men and the rest of the West. The
expression of face among the Donegal peasantry is a patience
that waits. The Mayo men seem dispirited as the Leitrim men also
do, but are capable of flashing up into desperation. The Galway
men seem never to have been tamed. The ferocious O'Flaherties,
the fierce tribes of Galway, the dark Spanish blood, have all
left their marks on and bequeathed their spirit to the men of
Galway. I met one or two who, like some of the Puritans,
believed that killing was not murder, who urged that if the law
would not deter great men from wrong-doing it should not protect
them." - Margaret Dixon McDougall; "The Letters of
"Norah" on her Tour Through Ireland"; 1882.
The Claddagh Tradition
The traditional wedding ring of the Irish since the 17th
Century, the Claddagh ring is worn by people all over the world as a
universal symbol of love, loyalty, friendship and fidelity.
"'The governor of New York, for example, mentioned recently
that roughly 200 Claddagh rings had been recovered already. I suppose that
might have something to do with the number of Irish-Americans lost [in the
World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001].' Nuala O'Faolain Irish Times
Magazine (3 November 2001)."
Traditionally handed down from mother to daughter the Royal Claddagh ring
has also become a symbol of our ties with the past and generations gone by.
As Irish people we remember the many many of our people who had to leave
Ireland with nothing but their lives during the Great Famine of the 19th
Century - many leaving from here in Cork harbour to make the long voyage
across the Atlantic to America. The gold Royal Claddagh ring was to become
for many the only enduring link with their home country and practically
their only savings and family inheritance.
reflecting the troubled history of Ireland itself, a hundred
years ago the Fenian ring, with two hands and two hearts, was
distinguishing by its lack of a crown to represent the struggle
for Republican Ireland - however the traditional Royal Claddagh
ring has always remaining the Irish standard proudly wearing the
crown as a symbol of loyalty, a remembrance of our ancient Irish
Kingdoms, and of our own British heritage.
Notable wearers of the Claddagh ring have included
Queen Alexandria and King Edward VII of Britain and Queen
Victoria of Britain and Ireland as it was then - a woman for
whom the streets of Dublin where lined with cheering people. And
in the little principality of Monaco, the Claddagh tradition
lives on in the Royal family of Monaco and the memory of the
beautiful Irish princess - Princess Grace of Monaco.
Today in the twenty-first Century, however, perhaps the most famous wearer of the Claddagh ring is the famous Buffy
of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. A present to her on her 17th
birthday from her vampire lover, Angel, the ring was to
symbolise their enduring love for each other - in spite of the
obvious difficulties and even one day call Angel back from Hell.
"My people - before I was changed - they exchanged
this as a sign of devotion. It's a Claddagh ring. The hands
represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty ... and the
heart ... Well, you know ... Wear it with the heart pointing
towards you. It means you belong to somebody. Like this."
Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Episode "The Surprise".
Tale of the Ring
The story is a remarkable glimpse into the history
of Ireland and its links with Moorish North Africa and Spain.
Patricia McAdoo has taken the story of the Claddagh and written
a beautiful children's book with illustrations by James Newell, The
Tale of the Ring.
How to wear the Claddagh ...
“I grew up in the Claddagh, a ﬁshing village
across the bridge from the walls of Galway town. My father was
a ﬁsherman and right below our cottage was a slipway
where, on clear mornings, the boats set sail, to return
heaving and jumping with slippery mackerel and cod. The smell
of ﬁsh always lingered on the air. Grandfather lived
with us and he was so tall that he had to bend very low to
come through the doorway. He spent his days sitting outside,
watching the world go by and carving pieces of old bogwood.
Every year, before the winter set in, he borrowed an ass and
cart and went west to the bogs above Barna. When he came back,
the cart was loaded with stretches of wood, which he carved
into ﬁgures during the long evenings. Everyone in the
Claddagh knew my grandfather. When I was eleven years old, he
carved a boat for me, a white sailed cutter, with cloth sails
of calico. Me and my brother Mikey took it down to the small
inlet beside the slipway where the boats came in. We put it in
the water and ran along the bank. ‘See it, Mikey,’ I
shouted. ‘See how it tacks into the wind like Father’s
boat.’ We raced the boat until it was too dark to see its
sail. Every Saturday, Grandfather took me across the bridge
into Fisher’s Lane market where the ﬁsh were sold.
Here, he laid out his carvings on an old blue shawl my mother
had given him. We stayed there until it grew dark and the
market closed for another week. Then we went to the harbour to
look at whatever ships were docked. On one particular evening,
there were a lot of trading ships from other countries. We
listened to the sailors as we walked down the quayside. They
spoke in languages we did not understand. ‘What was it like
to be away at sea?’ I asked. Grandfather, a merchant sailor
for many years, was full of stories of his adventures. ‘It
was hard, lad, but the great thing about it was we got to see
the world.’ I held his hand as I skipped along beside him.
‘And what’s the best place you’ve ever been?’ He didn’t
have to think too long. ‘That would have to be Tangiers.’
‘On the north coast of Africa.’ I knew all the place names
by heart from listening to tales of his adventures. ‘And
what was it like?’ ‘Oh lad, it was beautiful. So hot we’d
jump from the ship right into the sea to keep cool. Not a lot
of the men could swim, but by the time we left the harbour, I
could jump from the cross-sails.’ I had to run to keep up
with his long strides. ‘Where else?’ ‘Let’s see now.
Tarifa in Spain, across from Gibraltar.’ ‘And did you ever
bring anything back from those places?’ ‘No, but I always
tried to carve something to help me remember where I had been.
In Egypt, it was a camel I saw one day near the harbour, and
in Spain I remember carving a bullﬁghter. He was
carried through the streets of the town because he had
defeated the bull.’ ‘Where did all the carvings go?’
Grandfather shook his head. ‘I lost them … over the years.’
We made our way home, talking about the places he had been.
It was October. We sat around the ﬁre, me and my
brother Mikey, my mother, my baby sister Saoirse on my father’s
knee, and Grandfather on his bed. Father spoke as he cleaned
out his pipe. ‘The catch was poor again today. Let’s hope
it picks up soon.’ ‘What will you do?’ my mother asked.
There were a lot of mouths to feed in the house. ‘We’ll
have to go further out to the ﬁshing grounds west of
the islands. That’s bound to bring us a bit of luck.’ The
next day was stormy and the boats stayed moored. I went down
to the small beach near our house. My friend Annie was already
there, watching the waves break on the shore. We played catch
the waves for a while, dancing in and out at the very edge of
the sea. ‘Do you want to come to the Aran Islands tomorrow?’
I asked. ‘Father is planning a ﬁshing trip if the
weather gets better.’ Annie’s face lit up. Her father was
the shoe mender and they did not have a boat. In the morning
the sea was calm and I knew we would go. Grandfather decided
to come along so we set off early in my father’s boat. Mikey
wanted to come too. ‘No,’ said my mother. ‘Not this
time.’ We sailed west until we saw Inis Mór, the big
island, loom into view. My father tied the boat at the pier
and Annie laid out a picnic on a rock. We had the tea my
mother had put in a tin can, and some oatcakes with bread and
cheese. Then my father set off again, promising to be back
before sunset. The three of us started the walk across to Dún
Aengus, the ancient fort on the other side of the island. It
was a steep climb and Grandfather grew tired. ‘Leave me here
and go off with you, but don’t go near that cliff now. I’m
warning ye.’ ‘We won’t,’ I shouted back. We scrambled
up the rest of the hill and saw the ancient fort of stone.
There was a great view of the other islands. We stood for a
while and then made our way down. I stopped at the entrance to
the fort and looked at Annie. ‘Let’s see if we can spot a
gull’s nest.’ ‘We’d better be careful near the cliff,’
she said. ‘I know, I know. Come on.’ We headed towards the
cliff edge. I peered down. The water was far below and there
were no nests that I could see.
‘Let’s go back,’ said Annie. We were about to retrace
our steps when, out of nowhere, a seagull ﬂew in from
the sea, swooping very low, right across our heads. I tripped
and stumbled forward on the slippery grass. The swirling sea
came towards me as I fell over the cliff. I landed hard on a
ﬂat piece of rock a few feet below the edge. My foot
throbbed with white-hot pain and I closed my eyes, too scared
to look. Annie was calling to me but I could barely hear her
above the screaming of gulls and the crashing waves below. ‘Richard,
quick, quick. Look up! Give me your hand.’ But I didn’t
want to open my eyes. I knelt, holding on to a small piece of
rock that stuck out from the cliff face. ‘I can’t.’ My
voice was only a whisper. ‘Come on, Richard. Come on. It’s
not so far. See, my hand is just above you. I can pull you
back up. Look!’ So I opened my eyes and there was Annie with
her hand almost touching the top of my head. I reached up
slowly, my ﬁngers icy and shaking. ‘That’s it. That’s
it. Come on.’ We heard Grandfather shouting our names and at
that moment I felt Annie’s hand grab the tips of my ﬁngers
and then my wrist. ‘Now, hold tight. I’m going to pull you
up. Hold on.’ I thought my arm would break. The pain shot
through me. I was too scared to look up but I listened to
Annie’s voice. ‘I have you. We’re almost there. Hold on.
You’re nearly up.’
I wanted to scream but my voice was gone. My legs were
shaking. The wind hurt my ears. I searched for footholds in
the cliff face with my knees and feet, scrabbling to get up.
Annie held onto my wrist and, after what seemed like a long
time, I gripped the top of the cliff and was able to pull
myself up to the ﬂat grass where Annie lay. Her arms
were bleeding where she had scraped them on the rocks. I heard
Grandfather calling us again. A few minutes later he came
stumbling across the grass. He was out of breath. ‘Are ye
all right?’ he asked. ‘I got worried.’ I stood up but I
was a little dizzy so I sat back again beside Annie.
Grandfather took out his handkerchief and mopped her arms. ‘What
happened?’ ‘I fell,’ I managed to whisper. ‘Annie
saved me.’ Grandfather shook his head as if he could not
believe our luck. ‘Well, lad you have yourself a brave
friend here in Annie.’ ‘I know,’ I said. ‘Thanks
Annie.’ She smiled. Her lips were blue and trembling. ‘We’d
better get back. Your father will be landing soon.’ We could
hear him whistling before we saw the boat. He had had a good
catch. We walked slowly towards the pier. By the time the boat
pulled in, my arms and legs were beginning to feel better and
I was no longer limping. Grandfather said nothing about the
fall and neither did Annie. She pulled her jumper over the
scratches on her arms. We would never again go on a trip if my
father knew what I had done. But it was all I could think
about on the way home and all that night. Grandfather was
right – Annie had been very brave.
We went back to playing on the beach every day and feeding
the swans at the slipway. The winter set in and the weather
worsened. The ﬁshing catch got smaller and smaller. One
day, as I came home from the beach, Grandfather called to me
from his usual place. ‘Come here lad, it’s time I taught
you a bit about carving.’ I sat on a low stool beside him
and took the small knife and piece of bogwood he handed me.
Then I watched his hands and copied what he did as best I
could. I grew tired of holding the knife but all the same I
stayed by his chair, my eyes ﬁxed on his hands. The
ﬁrst thing he taught me to carve was a Galway hooker,
which is a boat with two sails. It took me three afternoons
and, when it was ﬁnished, Grandfather patted my head.
‘Now go and show your mother,’ he said.”