Like most things of Irish origin, the history of the claddagh ring can be traced back to a most colorful point of origin. In this case, the honors belong to Richard Joyce, a native of Galway.
Purity of Devotion
After being sold into slavery in the 17th century to a North African goldsmith, Joyce apprenticed the art of jewelry making. So well, in fact, that upon gaining his freedom in 1689, he was offered a handsome dowry and the opportunity to marry the daughter of liberating King William III. Instead, Joyce chose to return to the Irish village of Claddagh to reunite with his true love, who had faithfully been waiting for his return.
Inspired by the purity of her devotion, Joyce designed a special wedding ring featuring symbols of friendship (two hands), love (clasping a heart) and loyalty (framed by a crown). As a further testament to Joyce’s contributions to claddagh ring history, the earliest forms of this jewelry were found to have been engraved with the initials ‘RJ’.
A few centuries later, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 through 1849 prompted a large number of residents to seek a better life in places like Australia and the United States. They brought with them their prized claddagh rings, which they then as emigrants proudly passed down from mother to daughter as emblematic Irish heirlooms.
For those traveling to Ireland who are seeking to connect with the most authentic claddagh ring history, there are two destinations of note. The first is Thomas Dillons, a Galway jeweler founded in 1750 and the only artisan currently empowered by Dublin’s Assay Office with permission to stamp “original” on its claddagh ring merchandise.
Must See Claddagh Ring Museum
The other must-see destination is Galway’s Claddagh Ring Museum, conveniently located inside the aforementioned Thomas Dillons. There are on display claddagh rings designed by Joyce and compatriots George Robinson and Nicholas Bhurge, as well as a claddagh ring as small as the head of a pin.
More recently, the claddagh ring history’s Irish wedding origins have been co-opted to include the broader notion of a friendship ring, with the item appearing in popular culture in everything from Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” movie to the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The claddagh ring history also connects to a tradition of wearing it to convey different messages. During courtship, the ring was worn on the right hand with the heat imagery facing outwards; once a couple was engaged, the ring was turned inwards; and finally, at the point of marriage, the claddagh ring was transferred from the right to the left hand.