The Claddagh Ring belongs to a widespread group of finger rings called Fede or “Faith rings” which date from Roman times. They are distinguished by having the bezel cut or cast in the form of two clasped hands, symbolizing faith, trust or “plighted troth”. Fede rings were popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, and there are examples from this time in the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin. The “Claddagh” ring is a particularly distinctive ring; two hands clasp a heart surmounted by a crown.
The ring worn on the right hand, crown turned inward tells your heart is yet unoccupied, worn with the crown turned outwards, reveals love is being considered. Worn on the left hand the crown turned outward shows all, your heart is truly spoken for.
Huge numbers of Claddagh rings were left with a Mr. Kirwan following the Great Famine 1846/7 which finally had to be consigned to the melting pot as there was nobody to redeem or purchase them, hence the difficulty in ascertaining their origin.
Dillon describes some early rings, one with a mitre-like crown, rings made from coins, an analogous ring from Brittany, a “Munster” ring, also Spanish rings with some similarities. He tells us that the Claddagh ring was the only ring ever made in Ireland, worn by Queen Victoria and later by Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII. Their rings were made by Dillons of Galway, established in 1750, to whom the Royal Patent was granted, and the tradition has been carried on at Dillons to this day. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco in 1962 were presented with gifts embodying the Claddagh ring motif set in Connemara marble.
In 1984 when Galway celebrated its Quincentennial as a Mayoral City, the people of Galway presented a specially commissioned 18 carat gold Claddagh ring to President Ronald Reagan.
The earliest examples of Claddagh rings that can be dated are stamped with RI, the mark of Richard Joyce, a goldsmith working in Galway circa 1689-1737, of the Joyce Tribe, one of the renowned “Fourteen Tribes of Galway” City. According to Dr. Kurt Ticker in “The Claddagh Ring – A West of Ireland Folklore Custom” (1980) interest in Claddagh rings became dormant after Richard Joyce ended his manufacturing career in the 1730s, and it was revived a generation or more later, probably by George Robinson (Dillon in fact had attributed the earliest ring to Robinson). From then on, a number of Galway goldsmiths and jewelers of Galway made Claddagh rings. Their early manufacture was by cuttle-bone mould casting, then the cire perdue or “lost wax” process up to the 1840s, when manufacture became commercialized.
The Origins of the Claddagh Ring even yet remains a matter for conjecture, both popular stories of its origins attribute it to the Joyce family of Galway City. The two stories are as follows:
The first story says that a Margaret Joyce married Domingo de Rona, a wealthy Spanish merchant who traded with Galway. They proceeded to Spain, where he died, leaving her a considerable fortune. Returning to Galway she used her fortune to build bridges from Galway to Sligo, and re-married Oliver Og French, Major of Galway 1596/7. She was rewarded for her good works and charity by an eagle who dropped the original Claddagh ring into her lap.
The second story says that a Richard Joyce of Galway was captured by Algerian corsairs, sold to a Moorish goldsmith who trained him in the craft. In 1689 he was released from slavery as a result of a demand from King William III. The Moor offered him his only daughter in marriage and half his wealth, if he would remain in Algiers, but Joyce declined and returned home. He brought with him the idea of the Claddagh ring. The earliest Claddagh rings to be traced bear his mark and the initial letters of his name, RI (Richard Joyce).