“Love and Stuff”: The Claddagh Ring

I have always struggled to conceptualize the ways in which identity transcends religion. As a Jewish-American woman, I have constantly rooted my sense of both self and community in religious practices and institutions, a relationship which has allowed me to not only maintain my own spirituality but also immerse myself in social, cultural, and historical spaces. Tradition for me has, then, inevitably become a matter of religious practice: though the majority of my friends from my hometown in Wayne, New Jersey identify as Irish Catholic, the tangible ways in which I’ve imagined their experiences have been linked to Catholicism. In attending their communions, visiting their homes on Easter and Christmas, and engaging in conversations about the Catholic Bible, I have seen the ways in which Catholicism has been a manifest presence, continually permeating their lives on a daily basis. Because of this, I envisioned identity—and, more specifically, cultural affiliation—as being devoid of ethnic and national ties.

That is, until one afternoon, when I was sitting and talking to my friend Nicole McCloskey and noticed a small, silver ring on her right hand. The ring featured a pink heart with a crown above it, and I was captured by the way in which the pink gem glittered in the bright light of the midafternoon sun. Yet, the more I stared, the more I noticed something unusual about how she was wearing it, leading to a pressing question which sifted within me until I finally reached the point of asking:

“Why are you wearing your ring upside down?”

“I’m not!” she laughed, fumbling with the silver band of the ring. “It’s a Claddagh ring, you know?”

“No. No, I don’t know.”

“Oh, well, I mean—I guess, like, it’s an Irish thing about love and stuff. So, like, I have a boyfriend, so it points towards me. But if you’re looking for a new beau, you have it the other way.”

“But couldn’t someone just… ask if you’re single?”

“I mean, yeah,” she replied. “But it’s tradition. Kind of like your hamsa.

My hand awkwardly reached toward the light blue hamsa strewn across my neck, the mystic symbol that had been passed down from generation-to-generation and openly screamed, “This girl is Jewish!” Suddenly aware that I had subconsciously conflated Irishness with Catholicism, I was shocked to learn that community could reach beyond religion, could trickle into a national or cultural identity; for me, my connection to Judaism so clearly marked me as Other that I struggled to envision the critical differences that distinguished people from various ethnic and national groups. Inspired by my newfound knowledge of the Claddagh ring, I discovered a desire to uncover its history, its cultural implications, its significance beyond just “love and stuff.”

Claddagh Ring (1)

This is what my friend Nicole’s Claddagh ring looked like. SOURCE: www.kriskate.com/claddagh-rings/1178-sterling-silver-pink-heart-cz-claddagh-ring.html%5B/caption%5D

Upon looking into its history, I learned that the Claddagh ring is a really unique part of Celtic tradition, imbued with symbolism and marked by an ongoing sense of connection to Irish culture. The ring gets its name from the village of Claddagh in Ireland, and legends vary as to its origins. One story, however, claims that:

“…a man named Richard Joyce, who was supposed to be married to his true love [created the ring]. According to the story, he was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery, where he worked for a goldsmith and learned to design jewelry. He created a ring with the Claddagh design, and when he eventually managed to escape slavery, he brought the ring back with him. His beloved had never married during his long absence, so he gave her the ring he’d made while in slavery, and they were married immediately” (Crandall).

Although this is not the only legend related to the Claddagh ring, it serves as a particularly useful and unique reminder regarding Celtic tradition. Though in class, we have been reading groups of poem that seem to emphasize the futile attempts of noble Irishmen in the face of struggle—that is, various figures continue to fight for their causes only to experience defeat—this story serves to mark success. In the face of slavery and hardship, Joyce recovers his demeanor, creates something effectual for the Irish people, and ultimately finds himself victorious in his return home. Thus, the different narrative that the story presents serves as a reminder that the underdog still has the potential to emerge the victor, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The very structure of the Claddagh ring speaks directly to the symbolic meaning—that which my friend Nicole referred to as “love and stuff”—which the item itself actually displays. The ring is designed such that it contains two hands holding a heart topped by a crown. While sometimes, the ring is bejeweled like that of my friend Nicole, it can also simply be made of various precious metals, such as silver, gold, etc.

Essentially, the ring comes to symbolize that the wearer’s heart belongs to his/her/their “one true love” (Fantasy-Ireland). It is, perhaps, for that reason that each way the individual wears the ring signifies something different. According to the Celtic tradition:

Wearing one on your right hand with the heart facing away from you shows that you are looking for love, while wearing it with the heart facing toward you indicates that you are in a relationship. Wearing a Claddagh ring on your left hand with the heart facing away from you shows that you are engaged, while wearing it with the heart facing toward you indicates that you are married (Crandall).

It therefore makes sense that my friend Nicole had opted to wear the ring “upside down”—that is, toward her—on her right hand: she had a boyfriend and certainly would not have wanted people to think she was searching for love.

 

[caption id="attachment_970" align="aligncenter" width="300"]SOURCE: Google Images SOURCE: Google Images

Not only does the Claddagh ring emerge as a simple token of love—it also marks a sense of communal belonging, a heritage in which individuals of Irish descent take great pride. As I learned more about the Claddagh ring, I was able to reflect on the various ways in which cultures culminate, the complexity of identities which go beyond religious distinctions, and the essential nature of communal history and belonging. Though fairly cliché, I really did have an eye-opening experience wherein I saw myself in the other person and recognized that each of us maintains the traditions of our communities in order to preserve ourselves, whether Jewish, Catholic, or Irish. Effectively, then, I found in the Claddagh ring a site of material culture that allowed me to get closer to the poetry which we are reading, the Irish tradition on the whole, and my friend Nicole, as well.

Works Cited

Crandall, Maegan. “History of Claddagh Rings.” History of Claddagh Rings. Overstock. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

“Claddagh History, Folklore, and Symbolism.” Fantasy Ireland. Fantasy Ireland, 2012. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.