Sited on the western shore of where the Galway River enters the sea, there is a fishing-village, which may predate Galway (on the West Coast of Ireland). It gets its name from the Irish "An Cladach" meaning a flat stony shore. The Claddagh lived in a settlement of apparently haphazardly arranged cobbled streets and small squares flanked by thatched mud walled houses. This unique settlement was demolished in 1934 when the traditional houses were torn down to make way for concrete replacements. The Claddagh people tended to keep to themselves and generally married within the community - thus ensuring the survival of many interesting local customs, including that of the Claddagh Ring.
The Claddagh Ring belongs to a widespread group called "Faith" or more frequently by the Italian name "Fede" for finger rings. These finger or "faith" rings are distinguished by having the bezel cut or cast in the form of two clasped hands, symbolizing trust or plighted troth. There are several variants of this fede ring, the commonest being that in which the hands clasp a heart between them. The variant to which the name "Claddagh Ring" has been given is that in which a crown surmounts the clasped heart.
The fede ring, as a type of ring, goes back to Roman times and was quite common during medieval times. There are a few gold, silver and bronze examples in the National Museum of Ireland which date back to the Late Medieval Period. The Claddagh type ring is also known to have been in common use in the Aran Islands and throughout Connemara.
Tradition has it that these rings were handed down from mother to daughter. They were used both as betrothal and marriage rings: worn with the crown towards the knuckle on betrothal and on marriage with the crown toward the nail. Two main varieties of the Claddagh Ring are made in three sizes for men, women and children. Their manufacture is by the cire perdue, or lost wax process.
There are several popular versions of the origins of the Claddagh Ring, the two best known of which are attributed to the Joyce family, one of the so-called "Tribes of Galway" - a family associated with the City of Galway rather than the Claddagh village.
The first version:
Margaret Joyce married first a man named Domingo de Rona, a wealthy Spanish merchant who traded with Galway. He died shortly afterwards, leaving her a considerable fortune. She later married Oliver Og French, Mayor of Galway in 1596. Margaret used her fortune to build numerous bridges in Connacht and was providentially rewarded for her good work and charity by an eagle, which dropped a gold ring, the original "Claddagh Ring" into her lap.
The second version:
Richard Joyce, a native of Galway, was captured by Algerian corsairs while on his way to the West Indies. He was sold as a slave to a wealthy Moorish goldsmith who trained him in the craft. In 1689 he was released from slavery, along with other British subjects as a result of a demand from William III of England. The Moor offered him his only daughter in marriage and half his wealth if he would agree to remain in Algiers, but Joyce refused and returned home to his native city. He brought with him the idea of the "Claddagh Ring."
On the ring, "the hand stands for friendship, the crown for loyalty and the heart for love."