The Claddagh Ring is a famous friendship ring originating from the Claddagh village, located just outside the old walls of Galway city. The Claddagh design, an original symbol of the "Fisher Kings" of the Galway town of Claddagh, Ireland, was first fashioned into the traditional ring in the 17th Century during the reign of Mary II.
The ring's distinctive design features two hands clasping a heart surmounted by a crown. The elements of this symbol are often said to correspond to the qualities of friendship (the hands), loyalty (the crown) and love (the heart) that are said to combine in a good marriage.
The way that a claddagh ring is worn on the hand is usually intended to convey some indication of the wearer's romantic availability. It is generally true that if the ring is on the right hand with the heart facing towards the hand, indicates that the person wearing the ring is in a serious relationship (his/her heart is closed). A ring worn on the right hand, with the heart outward, away from the hand, the person wearing the ring is not in any serious relationship (the heart is open). A claddagh worn on the left hand with the heart toward the hand indicates marriage. The other orientation (heart outward) may indicate nothing, widowhood, or being engaged.
There are many different stories about the origin of the ring.
One story is about Margareth Joyce, a woman of the Joyce clan. She married a Spanish merchant, called Domingo de Rona. She went with him to Spain, but he died and left her a lot of money, she returned to Ireland and in 1596, married Oliver Ogffrench, the mayor of Galway. With the money she inherited from her first marriage, she funded the construction of bridges of Connacht. All this out of charity, so one day an eagle dropped the Claddagh ring into her lap, as a reward.
Another story tells of a Prince who fell in love with a common maid. To convince her father his feelings were genuine and he had no intentions of "using" the girl, he designed a ring with hands representing friendship, a crown representing devotion, and a heart representing love. He proposed to the maid with this ring, and after the father heard the explanation of the symbolism of the ring, he gave his blessing.
One story that may be closer to historical truth is about a man called Richard Joyce, another member of the Joyce clan and a native of Galway. He left his town to work in the West Indies intending to marry his love later that week, but his ship was captured and he was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith. In Algiers, with his new master, he was trained in his craft. When William III became king, he demanded the release of all British from the Moors. As a result, Richard Joyce was set free. The goldsmith offered Joyce his daughter and half his wealth if Joyce stayed, but he denied his offer and returned home to marry his love. He then started his own goldsmith shop and brought with him the idea of the ring.
The Irish Famine of 1847-1849 caused many to emigrate from Ireland, and the Claddagh ring spread along with the emigrants to the United States and elsewhere. These rings are often considered heirlooms, and passed on from mother to daughter as well as between friends and lovers.
The Claddagh Ring is a variant of older rings call "Fede" rings which date to Roman times. A "fenian" Claddagh without the crown was later designed in Dublin, but that is not an indication that the crown in the original design was intended as a symbol of fidelity to the British crown. The fenian Claddagh, while still being made, has not approached the popularity of the ancient design.
In Popular Culture, the Claddagh Ring has appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the title character Buffy Summers is given the ring by her vampire lover Angel, a native of Ireland.