The Claddagh ring is a ring fronted by a crowned heart held in two hands; usually gold (although I have seen them in silver), it symbolizes “friendship, loyalty and love.” Irish in origin, it has a rich history in Irish folklore and has become a transcultural phenomenon. Malachy McCourt has a reputation as gifted storyteller. The combination should be unbeatable.
As an indication of the widespread popularity of the Claddagh ring, particularly among those of Irish heritage, McCourt begins his account of its history and lore on September 12, 2001, in New York: accounts differ, but a number of Claddagh rings were recovered from Ground Zero – McCourt notes 200 – and many of those who were searching for lost loved one noted the Claddagh ring as an identifying piece of jewelry.
The history of the ring centers on the village of Claddagh, on Galway Bay in Connaught. It was, by repute, a conservative place, a fishing village that exercised strong control over fishing rights in the Bay, was not overly welcoming to “foreigners” (that is, anyone not from the village), and was in the part of Ireland that is still known today as “Joyce Country,” holdings of the Joyce family. One legend says that it was Margaret Joyce ffrench, wife of the Mayor of Galway in late Elizabethan times, who was given the first Claddagh ring by an eagle as reward and recognition of her good works – known as “Margaret of the Bridges,” she paid for the building of bridges throughout Connaught at her own – or her husband’s – expense. Fortunately, he was a successful merchant as well as being Mayor. A more likely story is that of Richard Joyce, who was trained as a goldsmith after being captured by Arab pirates and sold into slavery to a Turkish goldsmith; after being freed and returning to Ireland, Joyce discovered that his betrothed had patiently waited for him for the fourteen years of his captivity, and designed the Claddagh ring as his testimony to her faithfulness. Whatever the true story, it seems to be the case that after Richard Joyce stopped producing the rings in 1737, they became identified with the nearby fishing villge of Claddagh, where they became treasured heirlooms, passed down from mother to daughter, or, in some cases, grandmother to granddaughter. They were also given as gifts by grooms to their best men, or to close friends, or to sweethearts.
The most interesting section of the book is McCourt’s narrative of the history and life of Claddagh, including marriage customs and the relations between the sexes – according to McCourt’s sources, “The men, it was felt, needed all their strength for fishing, and it was best to keep them happy and not troubled by the daily goings on of village life.” The women, therefore, took charge of the money, giving their husbands an allowance for certain necessities – whiskey and tobacco chief among them. (Feminists and those who support the traditional roles of husbands and wives should both take note.)
McCourt follows with a section about the history of the ring as a symbol and an object, and returns for a brief look at modern Galway, where the ring is an omnipresent symbol, although most who use it don’t know its history, closing in New York.
The Claddagh Ring is best described as a “gift book” – that category of book given to those whom one does not know well enough to pick out something that is known to be of interest, but for whom a gift of some sort is a requirement. If they have, somewhere in their background, a genetic connection to Ireland, so much the better. (And for those whose Irish heritage is nominal and who are as mystified by Gaelic orthography as I, McCourt notes that it is pronounced “Cladda.”)
At a bare 109 pages, one cannot accuse this book of being substantial: it is light, makes every attempt to be charming, and does manage to impart a certain amount of information. There are one or two notable gaffes – McCourt has the Gaels invading Ireland sometime after St. Patrick Christianized the pagan Celts – and some interesting tidbits, mostly in the area of Irish customs and the history of Galway Bay. So, if someone you know is enthusiastic about the mythos of the Claddagh ring, it might make a nice gift.
(Running Press, 2003)