We've already written about where the Claddagh ring comes from and its transformation from an identifying symbol for the fishermen of Claddagh to a worldwide symbol of Irishness, friendship and love. But what about the man who designed and made it? Here at Claddagh Design, his legacy has been an inspiration for many of our silver and precious metal pieces over the years. See our Contemporary Handcrafted Irish Claddagh Jewelry inspired by Richard Joyce. In our previous post about the history of the ring we discovered the fascinating story of how ordinary Irishman Richard Joyce came to make the first Claddagh, and thought it was worth a blog post in its own right.
So who was Richard Joyce?
Although historians are largely convinced of the main facts of Richard Joyce's life, no records seem to show any specific details about times and events – apart from the most important ones. Joyce's exact date of birth isn't even known for sure, although it it most likely to have been close to 1660, and his date of death is purported to be 1737 (although again there is no definite proof). His role as the sole inventor of the Claddagh ring is even questionable, as there was more than one goldsmith operating in Galway at that time. His accreditation is probably due to the fact that he was responsible for popularising it – although on the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that he didn't invent the ring either. We do know for sure that he made plenty of them either way; examples of rings hand crafted by the man himself are still often circulated and auctioned for thousands.
Joyce's early life is especially vague. All we know is that his family was one of the Original Tribes of Galway. These were a collection of fourteen merchant families who more or less ruled the city due to their dominating influence on trade and politics from the 1200s – 1800s. So needless to say, the Joyces would not have lived the life of medieval peasants. In the 1600s Galway was a thriving medieval city, surrounded by thick stone walls at the mouth of the river Corrib. It was a busy trading city with international ships docking there regularly, and as a result was quite a multicultural place compared with other settlements around the country. At that time, Galway would have been loyal to the Crown and English influence would have been very prominent. Across the river bank however was Claddagh, a tiny fishing village whose inhabitants staunchly kept their own traditions, customs and language alive, wanting little to do with the bigger city across the water.
Richard's story really begins in 1675 when, most likely still as a teenager, he left Galway and set sail for the West Indies as an indentured servant. This was a widespread labour system at the time where young emigrants paid for their passage to the 'new world' (i.e North America) by first working as a labourer for a fixed period when they arrived. The circumstances around who Richard was working for, what his plan was, and why he was leaving are all unknown, but what we do know is that somewhere along the way the boat was intercepted by Barbary pirates from north Africa. That may sound somewhat ridiculous, but in fact it wasn't all that uncommon;Barbary pirates made a number of raids along the coasts of the British Isles in medieval times, capturing whoever they found and taking them back home to sell as slaves.
Richard would have endured a difficult sail to Algeria for several weeks, most likely in captivity on board the pirate's ship with the rest of his original crew. Once their final destination was reached, the pirates would have brought the slaves on to dry land and sold them to whoever wanted them; luckily, Richard landed on his feet and was bought by a very wealthy Turkish goldsmith. By all accounts, the goldsmith was fair and reasonably kind, treating his slaves much better than other men of his stature. Upon seeing that Richard was educated and came from a similar background, he began instructing him in his trade, with the Irishman proving himself to be a very adept student. We can only assume that since he had everything he needed and was learning a valuable trade that could make him lots of money, Richard wasn't completely despondent in Algeria at first.
As the years passed, no doubt Richard began to long for home. He spent fourteen years in total in captivity in the hot, dry, exotic lands of Algeria, a place worlds away from the cold, damp coast of the west of Ireland! Although he proved himself to be a talented goldsmith and was clearly in his master's favour, he must have had moments where he wished he could see an end to his captivity. It was only when King William III ascended to the throne of England in 1689 that his luck changed. King William, who was all too aware of the amount of British subjects in slavery abroad, sent an ambassador to Algeria to demand their immediate release. Richard immediately set off for home, even refusing the incredible offer his master made him; his daughter's hand in marriage and half of his property! In a more romantic version of the story, Richard refused the offer because he wanted to return home to marry the girl he was in love with before he left – in that version, he made the Claddagh ring especially for her to mark their engagement.
In any case, Richard got home, set up his own goldsmith business, married and had three daughters. He became a wealthy man in his own right and bought the estate of Rahoon, a few miles outside of Galway, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Quite quickly after his return, he earned the title as the most reputable and talented goldsmith in the city. Several examples of his craftsmanship still survive, with one of the more notable objects being the Prendergast Chalice in St. Patrick's College, Thurles. All are stamped with his mark; an anchor (a symbol for hope) and his initials. Sadly, no Claddagh ring survives with these marks – part of the reason why some historians doubt his involvement in its design.
The Claddagh Ring
Richard was able to draw on the various motifs and designs he would have encountered during his time away for his goldsmith business. Rings of a similar design to the Claddagh using hand and heart elements would have been in circulation around the Mediterranean, so its entirely possible that he just added his own twist to it – namely in the form of a crown on top. Similar rings would also already have been present in Galway due to the high level of international trading going on, as well as the practice of the Claddagh fishermen using rings to identify themselves and other sailors in their territory. So, its likely that Joyce created his own version of the rings already on the scene rather than coming up with the design from scratch. Essentially, he was capitalising on it by popularising the ring among the locals.
Initially, the rings were made for men and were quickly adopted by the Claddagh fishermen as their identifying symbol. The ring became synonymous with Claddagh and the people had several customs; the way it should be worn on the finger for example, and they could only be gifted a ring; it was forbidden to by one yourself. Its unique design became immensely popular throughout the city and eventually throughout Ireland, with new variations appearing all the time. It became a favourite symbol of love and was adopted as an engagement or commitment ring of sorts – initally for women to give men, although it was soon exchanged between close friends too. During the Famine of the 1840s Joyce's little design made its way across the waters to north America and the rest of Britain. Its popularity grew from there and it eventually became a symbol forever attached to Galway, Ireland, and love!
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Also check out our article 10 Famous Claddagh Ring Wearers