The Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish ring given in friendship or worn as a wedding ring. The design and customs associated with it originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside the old walls of the city of Galway. The ring was first produced in the 17th century during the reign of Queen Mary II, though elements of the design are much older.
The way that a Claddagh ring is worn on the hand is usually intended to convey the wearer's romantic availability, or lack thereof. Traditionally, if the ring is on the right hand with the design facing outward and away from the body, this indicates that the person wearing the ring is not in any serious relationship, and may in fact be single and looking for a relationship. When worn on the right hand but with the design facing inward toward the body, this indicates the person wearing the ring is in a relationship, or that "someone has captured their heart". A Claddagh worn on the left hand ring finger, facing outward away from the body, generally indicates that the wearer is engaged. When the ring is on the left hand ring finger and facing inward toward the body, it generally means that the person wearing the ring is married.
There are also many legends about the origins of the ring.
One tale is about Margaret Joyce, a woman of the Joyce clan. She married a Spanish merchant named Domingo de Rona. She went with him to Spain, but he died and left her a large sum of money. She returned to Ireland and, in 1596, married Oliver Ogffrench, the mayor of Galway. With the money she inherited from her first marriage, she funded the construction of bridges in Connacht. All this out of charity, so one day an eagle dropped the Claddagh ring into her lap, as a reward.
Another story tells of a Prince who fell in love with a common maid. To convince her father his feelings were genuine and he had no intentions of "using" the girl, he designed a ring with hands representing friendship, a crown representing loyalty, and a heart representing love. He proposed to the maid with this ring, and after the father heard the explanation of the symbolism of the ring, he gave his blessing.
One legend that may be closer to historical truth is of a man named Richard Joyce, another member of the Joyce clan and a native of Galway. He left his town to work in the West Indies, intending to marry his love when he returned. However, his ship was captured and he was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith. In Algiers, with his new master, he was trained in his craft. When William III became king, he demanded the Moors release all British prisoners. As a result, Richard Joyce was set free. The goldsmith had such a great amount of respect for Richard Joyce that he offered Joyce his daughter and half his wealth if Joyce stayed, but he denied his offer and returned home to marry his love who awaited his return. During his time with the Moors, he forged a ring as a symbol of his love for her. Upon his return, he presented her with the ring and they were married.
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, reluctantly 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 Algerian Corsair; on his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk who followed the profession of a goldsmith. Observing his slave Joyes to be tractable and ingenious he 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. 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|4=James Hardiman|5=
Yet another legend of the ring states that if you are wearing the ring on the right hand and the band breaks, the person you are with is destined to be your true love.
The Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849) caused many to emigrate from Ireland, and the Claddagh ring spread along with the emigrants to the United States and elsewhere. Now the design is worn worldwide. These rings are often considered heirlooms, and passed on from mother to daughter as well as between friends and lovers.
A "Fenian" Claddagh, without the crown, was later designed in Dublin for the Irish Republican community, but that is not an indication that the crown in the original design was intended as a symbol of fidelity to the British crown. The Fenian Claddagh, while still being made, has not approached the popularity of the ancient design.
Claddaghs continue to be worn, primarily by those of Irish heritage, as both a cultural symbol and as engagement and wedding rings. At their Celtic Pagan handfasting, Scottish American musician Jim Morrison of The Doors and Irish American author Patricia Kennealy-Morrison exchanged claddagh rings. A picture of the rings was included on the cover of Kennealy-Morrison's memoir, Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison, and the claddaghs can be seen in most of her author photos as well.
Claddagh rings have made periodic appearances in movies and television, often as a plot device to indicate the ethnic origins or relationship status of a character, to illustrate wedding scenes, or to subtly indicate that the relationship of two characters has changed. In a scene loosely based on the above wedding ceremony, Val Kilmer and Kathleen Quinlan, as fictional versions of Morrison and Kennealy-Morrison, are seen exchanging the rings in Oliver Stone's movie, The Doors.
Sometimes authors of fiction and fantasy works have given the ring a somewhat altered or fanciful symbolism to better suit their purposes, such as writer/director Joss Whedon's use of the ring as a recurring plot device in the television series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Whedon reinterpreted the meaning of the ring - when worn on the left hand, facing in, in the usual "married" configuration - as meaning, "the wearer is destined to be with his or her love forever." While the actual meaning ascribed to the ring in this instance is incorrect, it is used in much the same way as claddaghs have been used in more traditional roles in fiction: to provide an ongoing visual reference to the type of relationship that exists between two of the lead characters, Buffy and Angel.