Claddagh: The Town Behind the Ring

Here at Claddagh Design, the original Claddagh has been a source of inspiration for much of our work. We design and handcraft our signature Contemporary Claddagh Ring and Classic Irish Claddagh Rings so we have obviously find the history of this symbolic piece of jewelry fascinating. View our online store to see our Claddagh Irish Handmade Rings.

The meaning of the Claddagh Ring is something many people already know (especially if you've read this blog before; remember this one on The Origins of the Claddagh Ring?). But what comes as a surprise to most is the interesting history of the town it originated from. Claddagh in County Galway is a town with some fascinating customs and legends that are typical of ancient Ireland. Here is a (condensed) version of the last few centuries of Claddagh's history.

Claddagh Village in 1901.
Claddagh Village in 1901

Claddagh in Co. Galway is now a suburb of Galway City, situated at the mouth of the Corrib River. Today it has little more than a school, church and cluster of houses – much like any other small enclave in Ireland. But this little area is widely regarded as the oldest fishing village in the country. Sadly, very little physical evidence of this rich history remains - the fishermen's cottages were demolished in the 1930s in favour of council houses. However, written records show that Claddagh has been around for a long time (by which we mean well over 1000 years). When Galway city was still confined within its medieval walls, Claddagh would have been just outside them across the water from the Spanish Arch. This arch was where the city's fish markets were held, so Claddagh villagers would row across the river to sell their catch of the day. However, long before there were walls or a city, Claddagh was used as a source of water and fish for local ancient inhabitants ('Cladach', the Irish name for the village, means 'stony shore').

Customs and Way of Life

Claddagh was very much a separate community until relatively recent times. It had its own king, the people spoke only Irish, they had their own customs and the centre of their lives was the sea. This was very different to the English-speaking, Anglo-Norman city of Galway, whose inhabitants probably reacted to the native Claddagh villagers with a mixture of derision and fear. The fact that Claddagh fishermen had the sole rights to the fish in Galway Bay may have contributed to this; under the King's laws any outsider found fishing in their patch was liable to have his net and boat destroyed. As well as being the boss of the village, settling local disputes and enforcing by-laws, the King also led the fishing fleet out to sea and records say he had 'absolute' power among the fishermen. A new king was elected every year on 23rd of June, a tradition that was maintained until well into the 20th century.

The last King, Martin Oliver, died in 1972. At its peak the village of Claddagh had 468 cottages inhabited by five hundred families. 820 men operated around 80 boats. Over time however, younger generations began to migrate to Galway and further afield in search of work. In 1927 an outbreak of Tuberculosis spread rapidly through the community. Claddagh was declared a health hazard and all of the inhabitants were relocated - whether they wanted to or not. Plans were put in place to demolish the buildings and replace them with newer structures, with the last one destroyed in 1934. Boats and Fishing A type of boat known as a 'Hooker' was the King's vessel of choice, with other types (called Gleoteóg and Pucán boats) making up the rest of the fleet. White sails were used exclusively by the King. All other boats treated their sails with tree bark solution, making them stronger, waterproof, and as a result, brownish-red in colour. The boats were locally known as 'Hookers' because of the fishing methods the men used. 'Long lining' was a method by which individual fish were caught on long lines of baited hooks drawn through the water. The boats sailed out daily, and on their return the women would take the catch to the markets. But with the 20th century came trawler boats, and Hookers and the fishing tradition in Claddagh declined drastically.

A Galway Hooker fishing boat
A Galway Hooker fishing boat. Photo Credit: ah zut cc

So central was fishing to the villagers' way of life that they strictly upheld many superstitions. It was considered very bad luck to pick up any tool unrelated to fishing, i.e farming tools such as spades or ploughs. Any man who did was banished from the village. The sight of a red-haired woman on the way out to sea would make any fisherman quickly turn around and abandon their sea-faring plans for the day - as would the sight of a hare. No boat left for the sea without oat-cake, salt and ashes on board. However, if a crow flew over the boat and cawed, then that was considered a good omen!

The Ring

So where does the Claddagh ring come into all of this? There are a lot of different legends, some of them arguably not so factual. The Claddagh ring was designed by Richard Joyce, who was an Irish slave in the West Indies when he was captured by Mediterranean pirates. He was sold to a Moorish goldsmith (confusing, we know) who trained him, and when he eventually got back home to Galway in the 17th century, he founded a jewellery business. This backstory and the meaning of the ring, 'in love and friendship let us reign', or simply 'love, friendship and loyalty' are considered fact. As far as legends go, the Claddagh ring was said to be the symbol of the King of Claddagh and was worn by the fishermen of the village. When they came across other fishermen in their waters the ring was used as a form of identification – no ring meant big trouble. One of the less plausible legends is that one of the Kings, suffering from unrequited love, had his hands chopped off and placed around his heart as a symbol of his undying love.

In later centuries the ring became a fashionable token for friends and lovers to give each other. For a brief period a new design emerged (most likely from Dublin) of two hearts, two hands and no crown. It became known as the Fenian Claddagh. With the famine of 1847 – 1849, the ring spread across the Altantic to North America and beyond as Irish people emigrated in search of a better life. Claddagh rings often became family heirlooms and were handed down for generations or used as wedding rings. The ring became popular among non-Irish communities throughout the world after it was worn by Queen Victoria and later by Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII. In 1962, a brooch and cufflinks with the Claddagh motif were presented to Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Somewhere along the way the custom of how to wear the ring was established; with the heart pointing inwards if your heart is taken and outwards if your heart is looking for love.

Don't forget to take a look at our own Claddagh designs. We handmake our all of our products in our online store here in the work shop. So whether you are looking for Irish Claddagh Rings, Men's Irish cufflinks or Women's Irish necklaces, view our Online jewelry Store to see our range. If you would like us to adapt any of our designs feel free to get in touch. We will be delighted to personalize and redesign your Claddagh to meet your specifications.

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