The Claddagh ring (Irish: fáinne Chladaigh) is a traditional Irish ring given which represents love, loyalty, and friendship (the hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty).
The design and customs associated with it originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside the old city walls of Galway, now part of Galway City. The ring, as currently known, was first produced in the 17th century.
The Claddagh ring belongs to a group of European finger rings called "fede rings". The name "fede" derives from the Italian phrase mani in fede ("hands [joined] in faith" or "hands [joined] in loyalty"). These rings date from Roman times, when the gesture of clasped hands was a symbol of pledging vows, and they were used as engagement/wedding rings in medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Fede rings are cast in the form of two clasped hands, symbolising faith, trust, or "plighted troth". The Claddagh ring is a variation on the fede ring, while the hands, heart, and crown motif was used in England in the early 18th century.
Towards the end of the 20th century there was an explosion of interest in the Claddagh Ring, both as jewellery and as an icon of Irishness that now adorns many other objects from pub signs to grave stones. In more recent years it has been embellished with interlace designs and combined with other Celtic and Irish symbols, but this is a very recent phenomenon that corresponds with the worldwide expansion in popularity of the Claddagh ring as an emblem of Irish identity. 
As an example of a maker, Bartholomew Fallon was a 17th-century Irish goldsmith, based in Galway, who made Claddagh rings until circa 1700. His name first appears in the will of one Dominick Martin, also a jeweller, dated 26 January 1676, in which Martin willed Fallon some of his tools. Fallon continued working as a goldsmith until 1700. His are among the oldest surviving examples of the Claddagh ring, in many cases bearing his signature.
There are many legends about the origins of the ring, particularly concerning Richard Joyce, a silversmith from Galway circa 1700, who is said to have invented the Claddagh design as we know it. Legend has it that Joyce was captured and enslaved by Algerian Corsairs around 1675 while on a passage to the West Indies; he was sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith who taught him the craft. King William III sent an ambassador to Algeria to demand the release of any and all British subjects who were enslaved in that country, which at the time would have included the Richard Joyce. After fourteen years, Joyce was released and returned to Galway and brought along with him the ring he had fashioned while in captivity: what we've come to know as the Claddagh. He gave the ring to his sweetheart, married, and became a goldsmith with "considerable success". His initials are in one of the earliest surviving Claddagh rings but there are three other rings also made around that time, bearing the mark of goldsmith Thomas Meade.
A more mystical legend is also associated with the Joyce family: Margaret Joyce used her inheritance (from her late husband, Domingo de Rona, a wealthy Spanish merchant who traded with Galway) to build bridges in the province of Connacht. In 1596, she remarried Oliver Og French, Mayor of Galway.Claddagh Museum at Thomas Dillon's Claddagh Gold, Galway, Ireland.
The clasped hands [style ring]... are... still the fashion, and in constant use in [the]... community [of] Claddugh [sic] at [County] Galway.... [They] rarely [intermarry] with others than their own people.
An account written in 1906 by William Dillon, a Galway jeweller, claimed that the "Claddagh" ring was worn in the Aran Isles, Connemara and beyond. Knowledge of the ring and its customs spread within the British Isles during the Victorian period, and this is when its name became established. Galway jewellers began to market it beyond the local area in the 19th century. Further recognition came in the 20th century.
American mineralogist and ring expert George Frederick Kunz does not mention the Claddagh ring in the text of his book, but a photo of one, captioned with its correct name, is depicted. Kunz merely addresses the importance of gold wedding rings in Ireland with absolutely no reference to the Claddagh other than the photo. The story of the Claddagh ring is too loaded with myth to precisely identify the true origins of its design, beyond the Roman fede ring design, or its history. Furthermore, it is unclear exactly how or when the ring was brought to the United States. McCarthy practically fails to address the subject of Irish rings at all.
Usage and symbolism
The Claddagh's distinctive design features two hands clasping a heart, and usually surmounted by a crown. The elements of this symbol are often said to correspond to the qualities of love (the heart), friendship (the hands), and loyalty (the crown). A "Fenian" Claddagh ring, without a crown, is a slightly different take on the design. Claddagh rings, with (more commonly than not) or without the crown, are relatively popular among the Irish and those of Irish heritage, such as Irish Americans, as culture symbols and/or as symbols of engagement, marriage, or love.
Claddagh rings are often used as friendship rings but are most commonly used as engagement/wedding rings. Mothers also give these rings to daughters when they come of age. When the hands that hold the heart are angled towards the girl, that means she is taken, when the heart faces out, the girl is single. This has become common largely due to the sentimental motto: "This is my heart which I give to you crowned with my love." Also associated with the ring is this wish: "Let love and friendship reign." In Ireland, the United States, and other places, the Claddagh is handed down mother-to-eldest daughter or grandmother-to-granddaughter. According to Irish author Colin Murphy, the way in which a Claddagh ring was worn with the intention of conveying the wearer's relationship status:
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips, the wearer is single and may be looking for love. (This is most commonly the case when a young woman has first received the ring from a relative, unless she is already engaged.)
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist, the wearer is in a relationship.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips, the wearer is engaged.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist, the wearer is married.
There are other localised variations in the traditions involving the hand and the finger upon which the Claddagh is worn. Folklore about the ring is relatively recent, not ancient, with "very little native Irish writing about the ring". Hence, the difficulty today in finding any source that describes or explains the traditional ways of wearing the ring.
- George Frederick Kunz. (1911.) Rings for the Finger: From the Earliest Known Times, to the Present, with Full Descriptions of the Origin, Early Making, Materials, the Archaeology, History, for Affection, for Love, for Engagement, for Wedding, Commemorative, Mourning, Etc., J. B. Lippincott Co.
- William Jones. (1890.) Finger Ring Lore: Historical, Legendary, Anecdotal, Chatto and Windus, London.
- George Quinn. (1970.) The Claddagh Ring, The Mantle, 13:9–13.
- Jack Mulveen. (1994.) "Galway Goldsmiths, Their Marks and Ware", Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 46:43–64.
- Scarisbrick and Henig, Finger Rings, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003
- Delamer, Ida (1996). "The Claddagh Ring". Irish Arts Review 12: 181–187. doi:10.2307/20492901.
- Aubrey, John, Miscellanies, London, 1696: "I have seen some Rings made for sweet-hearts, with a Heart enamelled held between two right hands."
- McCrum, Elizabeth (1985). "Irish Victorian Jewellery". Irish Arts Review 2 (1): 18–21.
- Enamelled gold fede ring, set with rose-cut diamonds in silver collets, with a crowned heart held by two hands inscribed "Dudley & Katherine united 26.Mar. 1706" — Victoria and Albert Museum
- Stephen Walker (2013.) The Modern History of Celtic Jewellery: 1840-1980, Walker Metalsmiths ISBN 9780615805290.
- A freely available but incomplete copy of Delamer's article, The Claddagh Ring (1996), without pictures.
- Pearsall, Judy [ed.]. (2004.) "Claddagh Ring" in The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press.
- Adrian James Martyn. (2001.) The Tribes of Galway, p. 60.
- James Hardiman (1820), The History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway, http://claddagh.com/library/joyes.htm
- James Mitchell. (1985.) The mis-titled "Joyce" tomb in the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, Galway, vol. 40.
- Robert Chambers. (1863.) Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities.
- William Dillon. (1906.) Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 5.
- "Letters to Dillon's of Galway". Thomas Dillon's Claddagh Gold Museum.
- James Remington McCarthy. (1945.) Rings Throughout the Ages: An Informal History, Harper & Row, New York City, NY.
- Paddy Sammon. (2002.) Greenspeak: Ireland in Her Own Words, Town House Press, Dublin, Ireland. ISBN 1-86059-144-2.
- Colin Murphy and Donal O'Dea. (2006.) The Feckin' Book of Everything Irish, Barnes & Nobles, New York, NY, p. 126. ISBN 0-7607-8219-9
- Jo O'Donoghue and Sean McMahon (2004) Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable
- Patricia McAdoo. (2005.) Claddagh: The Tale of the Ring: A Galway Tale, Galway Online. ISBN 9780955165207.
- Seán McMahon. (2005). Story of the Claddagh Ring, Mercier Press, Cork, Ireland.