The Claddagh Ring

"Irish Arts Review Yearbook" Vol. 12, 1996

by Ida Dellamer

Claddagh Ring

Ida Delamer unravels the doubtful origins of a popular Irish jewellery design. The story of the Claddagh ring, which is made up of a plain hoop attached to a hammered or cast bezel designed as two hands clasping a crowned heart, has so much folklore and myth attached to it that it is difficult to know where legend ends and truth begins. The most fanciful account (see Appendix I) describes how the original was dropped by an eagle into the lap of Margaret Joyce in the sixteenth century, but greater credence is generally accorded to the belief that the design originated with an early—eighteenth century Galway goldsmith, Richard Joyce. 'The motif of clasped hands, which is generally referred to as a fede (in Italian 'mani in fede') or 'hands in faith' has been in use on bezels of love rings since Roman times.: The heart, regarded by lovers as the seat of affection, made an appearance on rings at a later date as did the crown which denotes perfection. An example of a sixteenth century gold fede ring is one that was recovered in 1972 from the large Spanish Armada galleon Girona which was wrecked in 1588 off Port na Spaniagh, North Antrim.

The bezel consists of a tiny hand holding a heart and the ring is inscribed 'No tengo mas que dar te' (I have nothing more to give you). Oman illustrates many eighteenth and nineteenth century rings with hands holding a heart. These are love rings or rings that were given on the occasion of a marriage for, as he explains, the custom of a bride giving a ring informally to her husband just before or after their wedding ceremony goes back some centuries.

An English ring dated 1706 in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Fig. 1) has all the characteristics of a Claddagh ring except that the bezel, instead of being plain gold, is set with a diamond heart crowned and held by two white enamelled gold hands. The inscription on the inside, 'Dudley and Katherine united 26 Mar 1706' obviously denotes a marriage. In Ireland, the four earliest extant rings of the Claddagh type are datable to about 1700 and of these, one is by a Galway goldsmith, Richard Joyce (Fig. 2); but the other three are attributed to Thomas Meade, a goldsmith who was admitted a Freeman of Kinsale Corporation in 1689. Of the latter, one is marked 'T Meade', another 'T Meade TM' and the third has the punch 'T M' struck twice (see Appendix III). The design of hands supporting a crowned heart was, therefore, known in Galway and also Kinsale in the early years of the eighteenth century. Further evidence of this is a curious mid—eighteenth century Chippendale—style ladder—back chair which was the Presidential Chair of the Kinsale Knot of the Friendly Brothers Society (Fig. 3). During a recent restoration of the chair, when a later armorial canvas was removed from the back, the painted armorials of the Friendly Brothers were revealed with a device of two hands, holding a crowned heart above the motto 'Quis Separbit'. The initials which are inscribed on the inside of many of the eighteenth and early—nineteenth century gold Claddagh rings (see table) also suggest a commemoration of marriage. In Ireland during the same period, similarly inscribed flatware — with three initials rather than the family crest — was often presented on the occasion of wealthy marriages (Fig. 4) The initial indicating the surname was placed centrally above the bridegroom's initial (on the left) and the bride's initial (on the right).

Probably due to economic and social circumstances, there are very few surviving gold Claddagh rings from the period 1730—70; but the punches of two Galway goldsmiths, George Robinson and Austin French, appear on many rings which date from the last thirty years of the eighteenth century. From the early 1800s to about 1850, the following jewellers and watchmakers all contributed to the growing Claddagh ring industry in Galway: Andrew Robinson, Nicholas Burgh, James Clinch, and James Sealy.

Although Claddagh rings were known and made in Galway (and in Kinsale) from at least the early years of the eighteenth century, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that rings of this type became known as 'Claddagh' and the origin of the name may be traced to Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carter. Hall's three—volume description of Ireland which was published in London between 1841—43."

The Halls wrote of the inhabitants of the Claddagh, a fishing village adjoining the town of Galway as follows: 'They have many peculiar customs. One is worthy of special note. The wedding—ring is an heirloom in the family. It is regularly transferred (by a mother) to her daughter first married and so on to their descendants. These rings are largely of solid gold and not infrequently cost from two to three pounds each.' Accompanying this account was an illustration of a fede ring (Fig. 5). While working on their volumes, the Halls had advertised for communication from persons who may be strangers concerning matters of interest connected with Ireland to assist in giving completeness to their work". One of those who obliged with information was Thomas Crofton Croker (17981854), the pioneering collector of Irish folklore to whom many acknowledgements are made throughout the Hall volumes (Fig. 6). Croker, a native of Cork, who in 1818 secured a clerkship in the British Admiralty in London — where he served until retirement in 1850 — was interested from an early age in old Irish legends and stories and he toured throughout Ireland several times to sketch and study local traditions. It is most likely that Crofton Croker was author of the legend of the Claddagh ring as recounted by the Halls as well as its illustration as a large part, if not all, of the folklore content of their work has been attributed to him. Croker's own work, 'Irish Fairy Legends', published in 1825, was the 'outcome of tales and conversations with peasantry he knew well, then elaborated over the midnight oil with great skill and delicacy of touch in order to give a saleable book, thus spiced, to the English public'. Recently, however, Croker has been discredited as a reliable source: he 'could not contain his literary sub—editorial instincts which often overcame whatever regard he may have had for historical authenticity'. His account of the origin of the Claddagh ring may also be questioned.

According to Hardiman's 'History of Galway' (1820), the Gaelic—speaking people of the Claddagh were 'an extremely poor and unlettered race. They were living in thatched houses or cabins. Fishing was their sole occupation.' While the women of the Claddagh certainly wore wedding rings of the Claddagh type, these were often made of various alloys of gold, silver, brass, bronze, and guinea coins and were far from being the large solid gold ring romantically described by the Halls as passing from mother to daughter.

The Halls' account may also be discounted on the basis of other evidence. In the first instance, with a few exceptions, all extant gold Claddagh rings made prior to 1840 are male rings. This can be deduced from the internal diameter measurements of the extant rings. Secondly, the cost of a solid gold ring would have been beyond the means of the majority of the inhabitants of the Claddagh. Thirdly, the letters inscribed on rite insides of the early rings are not Gaelic which was the language of the Claddagh people. One might also add that the use of three inscribed initials to commemorate a marriage was (as has been demonstrated) a practice of the wealthy upper classes and furthermore, for practical reasons, a fisherman was unlikely to have worn a ring with as large a bezel as a Claddagh.

Mr. and Mrs. Hall's account of the Claddagh ring is reiterated almost verbatim in a London publication of 1863, 'Chambers Book of Days', which includes an exact replica of the fede ring as illustrated by them; and the same illustration was used in another London publication, 'Finger Ring Lore by William Jones (1877) where it is captioned 'The Claddagh Ring'.

In 1906 a Galway jeweller, William Dillon, published on article in the 'Galway Archaeological and Historical Journal' entitled 'The Claddagh Ring'. Part of this paper was contributed by the journal's editor, part by Mr Dillon. An editorial note stated, 'It will be seen that this subject requires further investigation and this (paper) must be considered as a preliminary treatment of it'. The paper limited the district in which the Claddagh ring was worn 'roughly from the Aran Isles on the West, all through Connemara and Joyce's Country and then eastwards and southwards for not more than 12 miles.

Dillon concluded that while the ring was worn 'over a much wider district there is nevertheless some justification for its being designated the Claddagh ring. The objection to the title would be that the Claddagh people being, as is well known, in many respects a separate community with customs of their own, it might be inferred from the name that the use of this ring was among their peculiar customs, which of course would be a mistake.

Mr. Dillon, being a jeweller, naturally had a vested interest in the story of the Claddagh origin of the rings, and he mentions a pawn—broker, Mr. Kirwan, who 'after the famine of years of '46 and 47' had left on his hands Claddagh rings on which he advanced cash in his pawn broking business to the extent of £500 and which he claimed were chiefly pawned by people of the Claddagh, who were even then emigrating in hundreds. This statement was committed to paper sixty years after the Famine and cannot possibly be correct. In 1846/47 five hundred pounds was a large fortune and the number of families living in the Claddagh prior to that period was merely four or five hundred. Furthermore, Slater's 'Directory of Ireland lists nine pawnbrokers trading in Galway in 1846 and Mr. Kirwan's name is not among them.

The renowned antiquarian and scholar, Dudley Westropp (18681954), corresponded with William Dillon while researching, inter alia, Galway goldsmiths for Sir Charles Jackson's 'English Goldsmiths and their Marks, and a letter from Dillon to Westropp gives details of how his father, Thomas Dillon, came to Galway from Waterford in 1850.

The letter includes the information that Richard and Thomas Dillon, goldsmiths, Waterford, sons of Jonathan Dillon (watchmaker), Waterford and grandsons of Joseph Dillon (goldsmith) Waterford, after publication of the Halls' work manufactured Claddagh rings in Waterford. Especially noteworthy is a Claddagh ring made for Queen Victoria by Dillon's of Waterford around 1849. In 1850 Thomas Dillon moved to Galway and opened a shop in No 1 William Street, while his brother, Richard Dillon, remained in Waterford. Thus the manufacture of the Claddagh ring from 1843 onwards gradually became commercialised, the design being reproduced as far a field as Birmingham.

There is no doubt that the growing manufacturing activities of the jewellers and watchmakers of Galway between 1850 and 1900 added greatly to the increasing popularity of the Claddagh ring both here and abroad. Thomas Dillon, Roland Stephens, Louisa Burgh, Stephen Fallon, and Thomas Hartnell all made important contributions to the commercial success of these attractive love tokens for both men and women. By 1900 T. Dillon and Sons were advertising in the 'Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Journal not only Claddagh rings but also 'Original Claddagh brooches, bangles and scarf pins'. Today every Irish jeweller displays a profusion of Claddagh rings, brooches, neck pendants, bracelets, ear rings, cufflinks and other jewellery.

While we can be certain that the name Claddagh as applied to a gold ring with a motif of clasped hands holding a crowned heart goes back no further than the Halls' publication of the 1840s, the question of whether or not such rings actually originated in the Claddagh district of Galway remains problematic. In making rings, did eighteenth—century Galway silversmiths such as Richard Joyce, George Robinson, Austin French, and Andrew Robinson simply use a known motif symbolic of love and friendship and was it then copied in various metal alloys by the less wealthy such as the Claddagh women; or did they, as is less likely, take a motif already traditional to the rural community of Galway and surroundings and make it in turn fashionable for the wealthy?

Appendix 1

James Hardiman in his 'History of Galway (1820) p. 15 recounts a legend which at that time was still 'piously believed' by the Joyce family of Galway. The romantic story relates to Margaret Joyce, the wealthy widow of a Spanish merchant, who in 1596 married Oliver Oge Ffrench, Mayor of Galway. During the absence of her second husband this lady erected at her own expense most of the bridges of the province of Connaught and as she was one day sitting before the workmen an eagle flying over her head let fall into her bosom a gold ring adorned with a brilliant stone the nature of which no lapidary could ever discover'. Several authors have attempted to connect this ring with the origin of the Claddagh ring. It is difficult to see any connection between a ring with a large stone bezel and that of a cast metal crowned heart held by two hands.

Furthermore, the Blake family records of 1905 (Martin Blake, National Library Coll No. IR9292B6, p.239) note. 'A curious relic has been preserved in the senior line of the Joyces of Joyce Country for 300 years; it is a stone of the shape and size of an egg and of polished surface, possibly a species of crystal. According to the tradition of the family the stone was dropped by an eagle into the lap of Margaret, daughter of John Joyce and wife of Oliver Oge Ffrench who was Mayor of Galway 15961597. The relic is the possession of Martin B. Joyce formally of Tinahille in Joyce Country by now, 1905, residing in the town of Galway'.

About the Author

Ida Delamer is a former Chairman of the Silver Society of Great Britain and a Member of the Antique Plate Committee of the Goldsmiths Company.


My sincere thanks to Mairead Dunlevy and Conor O'Brien for information on Thomas Crofton Croker. Also to Murough de Vere O'Brien for Robert Senuit's book on the Spanish Armada Treasures. My thanks to John Teahan, Dermot St. John and Valerie Dowling of the National Museum for their help with photographs. Many thanks to Anthony North of the V & A Museum and to Mary Boydell for photographs. Sincere thanks to Cathy Fitzgerald for typing this article.

List of Figures

  1. Fede Ring. Diamond with enamelled gold. English, 1706. Inscribed on the inside, Dudley and Katherine united 26 March 1706. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). This early ring has all the characteristics of a Claddagh ring with a pair of hands clasping a crowned heart. The inscription indicates that it commemorates a marriage.
  2. Claddagh Ring. Gold. By Richard Joyce of Galway. c.1700. Inscribed on the inside with the initials NCM and MRC and the maker's mark. (Collection The Hon Gareth Browne). Joyce is traditionally believed to have originated the design of the Claddagh ring although, as this article makes clear, this is extremely unlikely.
  3. Chair. Irish, c.1760. (Collection The Friendly Brothers, Dublin). This is the Presidential Chair of the Kinsale Knot of the Friendly Brothers which was revived in 1754. The motif of hands clasping a crowned heart in the centre of the decorated panel is presumably intended as an emblem of friendship.
  4. Marriage Spoons: Dublin silver, varying dates between 1701 and 1760. (National Museum of Ireland). The initials on the spoons are the bridegroom's surname above his Christian name (left) with the bride's Christian initial on the right. Similarly inscribed initials are found on the inside of Claddagh rings indicating that they, like marriage spoons, could have been given in commemoration of marriage.
  5. Illustration of a Claddagh Ring. From Hall's 'Ireland (1841—43). Probably based on a drawing by Thomas Crofton Croker, the publication of this illustration in the mid—nineteenth century led to the proliferation and commercialisation of Claddagh rings.
  6. Portrait of Thomas Crofton Croker. Etching after Charles Grey from the Dublin University Magazine, August 1849. (National Gallery of Ireland). Croker was a pioneering collector of Irish folklore who supplied information, including the story of the Claddagh ring, to the Halls for their book on Ireland in the 1840s.

Appendix 2 — Galway Goldsmiths, from 15001900

Silver wares stamped with local marks were made in Galway from about 1650 to 1750. These marks were:

  1. The Maker's Mark, the initial letters of the Christian name and surname of the maker.
  2. The Town Marks, a ship and an anchor struck singly or together on the one piece.

Fineness marks were not used by the Galway goldsmiths. The use of the anchor as a town mark was not confined to Galway. It was used as a town mark by Goldsmiths of Birmingham, Greenock, Canongate, now part of Edinburgh, and possibly by goldsmiths of the smaller English towns in the West Country area. For this reason the anchor mark has to be considered in relation to all other stamped marks found with it when identifying a piece of gold or silver. It is probable that silver chalices were made in Galway as early as 1600 as there are many extant of good quality, made during the years 16001650 with engraved inscriptions associated with west of Ireland families.

Andrew Fallon. (Goldsmith) c.1500. Galway Council Book A. 390—
Donill Oge Ovalloghan. (Goldsmith) c.1500. Galway Council Book A. 390—91
(O'Nolan) Free of Galway 1500 for maintaining his father—in—law Andrew Fallon.
Thomas Davin. (Goldsmith) 1575. d.1579. Inscription on tomb stone Franciscian Abbey, Galway. Sketch of tomb Hardiman's p.316.
Bartholomew Fallon. (Goldsmith) Galway Corporation Book. 1679. d.1722.
Richard Joyce. (Silversmith) returned from Algiers 1690. Married 1709. Last mentioned 1737 (Chalice N.M.).
Mark Fallon. (Goldsmith) Free 1696. Married 1722. Working c. 1740.
Thomas Lynch. (Silversmith) Married 1706.
Robert Andrews. (Jeweller) Mentioned 1740 (Hardimans). 1769 (Faulkner). d.1769.
John Shadwell. (Silversmith) Married 1757 Galway.
Elias Tankerville. (Clock and Watchmaker) (1764 on Common Council of Galway, mentioned Hardiman's 'History of Galway, p.187).
Thomas Fitzfrancis Lynch. (Silversmith) d.1771.
George Robinson. (Goldsmith) Free 1772. Galway Corporation. Book K. Mentioned 1778 (Faulkner) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company 1784. d.1806.
Austin French. (Goldsmith) Perhaps working prior to 1771. Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1784.
Martin Lain. (Silversmith) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1784
Laurence Coleman. (Silversmith) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1784.
Francis Dowling. (Silversmith) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1785.
Michael O'Mara. (Silversmith) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1785.
William Leatham. (Watch Maker) Free 1775. Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1786.
James Kelly. (Jeweller) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1799. Pigot's Directory 1820
Andrew Robinson. (Jeweller & Watch Maker) Free 1813. Pigot's Directory 18201824.
Nicholas Burge. (Jeweller & Watch Maker) Registered Dublin Goldsmiths' Company. 1817. Pigot's Directory 1820—24 and 1846.
James Clinch. (Jeweller & Watch Maker) Pigot's Directory 1820.
Charles Verdon. (Clock & Watch Maker)) Pigot's Directory 1820. Roland Stephens (Watch Maker) Pigot's Directory 1846.
Ed. O'Flaherty. (Jeweller) Pigot's Directory 1846.
James Sealy. (Jeweller) Pigot's Directory 1846.
Louisa Burge (Jeweller) Pigot's Directory 1856.
Thomas Dillon. (Jeweller & Watch Maker) Waterford 1842—50. Galway. 1850—C.1900.
Philip Roche (Clock & Watch Maker)) Pigot's Directory 1881.
Chas. Shiffield (Clock & Watch Maker)) Pigot's Directory 1881.
Luke Stephens (Clock & Watch Maker)) Pigot's Directory 1881.
Stephen Fallon. (Clock & Watch Maker)) Pigot's Directory 1894.
Thomas Hartness. (Jeweller) 1900.
William Dillon. (Jeweller &.Watch Maker) 1900.