“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.


The Fringes of the Fringe

I may have a problem when it comes to remote Northern islands. Ireland was the first, and when I visited it in the 80s, it still was in many ways remote from the rest of the world. The Celtic Tiger economic boom was still in the future, as were all of the horrible cheap looking holiday homes on the coasts that followed the tiger. It was cheap, the coffee was awful, you could hitchhike all around the country in complete safety and there were no big roads. I still love Ireland, but in the last 25 years, it has become more like the rest of Europe; you can zoom across the country on a four lane highway, and there’s been a lot of unfortunate building. Traditional Irish cottages looked like this, three windows and a door, whitewashed, under a thatched roof:


From www.irishpage.com/prayers/bleshaus.htm%5B/caption%5D



That’s Ben Bulben in the background, by the way, where Yeats roamed as a boy.




Nowadays, if you want to rent a cottage, you’re more likely to find something like this… 5 star and glamorous, according to the ad.



And worse, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger left half finished developments all over the country. Here’s a gallery from HuffPost.

My new obsession is Iceland, which reminds me of Ireland 30 years ago, only with volcanoes. Iceland, curiously, has some claim to being a partially Celtic country. The Irish monks who first settled there before the Vikings arrived in 874 hardly count, because, of course, they left no descendants.

[caption id="attachment_957" align="alignright" width="163"]irish_monks Irish monks sailing to Iceland in a very small boat.

They were just looking for the most remote place imaginable to pray and get closer to their God.

Nor do the early Viking settlers sound very Celtic; they have names like Ingolfur Arnason (there should be an accent on the o in Ingolfur, but this interface won’t let me add it) and Hrafna-Floki Vilgerðarson, Raven-Floki son of Vilgerð, and Unn the Deep Minded, an extraordinary woman who lead her whole family to a new life in Iceland from… Ireland, via Scotland and the Orkney Islands. She was Norse through and through, but plenty of other women who went with the Vikings to Iceland seem not to have been. Recent DNA studies suggest that 63% of Settler women were actually from the British Isles; 80% of Settler men, on the other hand, were Nordic. What does this mean? Well, let’s just say that some of those women were probably given little choice about whom they “married” and where they went. You can read more about the DNA study at the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic studies, where I was lucky enough to spend 6 weeks last Fall. Next up (next summer) the Orkney Islands. I’ll keep you posted.


That’s Leif Ericsson behind me, looking towards America.

Welcome to the Blog

Because this blog is supposed to allow you to indulge your interests (or obsessions) in a more freeform and creative way than academic papers permit, I don’t want to establish too many rules. Make it fun, make it pretty, that’s about it. Each week 4 people should post, according to the schedule below– if this schedule is inconvenient for you, then trade with someone. All posts should be up by the end of the day on Friday of that week, but here again, I see no need to make a hard deadline.

Posting when you’re supposed to is only part of your job; you should also take the time to respond to other people’s posts– not all of them, but whatever you find interesting or want to add to.

Like any good general, I will go first (this one doesn’t count).5a3b797d3df6f695babb188726affce0

Some for the road —

“Sun” by Micheal O’Siadhail

(I believe he read this poem at the reading we attended)

A fireball I cannot hold a candle to —
Light-years more giving, ample and rife
With desire, magnolia chalice of body

I touch petal by petal and undo.
Like an overcoat a wife must last a life
My poor sober father had cautioned me.

Paced madness . Patient furnace of sun.
Shape me, kiln me, cast me, love me,
Mate, mistress, queen, courtesan, in one.

Our naked nothing. Wing-giving delirium.
All caution to winds and kings of Jericho,
In Rahab’s window tie a crimson thread.

Jag of bliss. Drowsed and overcome
My life for yours. Ravish me! I grow,
I sweat, I ripen in your pleasured bed.

“Homing” by Micheal O’Siadhail

Longbow years of longing
Bends an arc’s wooden U.
Tenser stretch, fiercer shoot.

An arrow rigs a violent route
Gathering into a shaft of yew
Dreamed eye of a golden ring.

Cupidinous. Desire overdue.
A goose cock-feather quivering. No hard-to-get. No pursuit.

Come what may. Coute que coute.
I finger a silk-whipped string.
My life takes aim for you.

O Eros ravish and enlarge us.
Just to gaze, to listen, to mingle.
Sweet fusion. Carnal relish.
Break me again with outlandish
Desire my prowling Mademoiselle.
The arrow of our time discharges.

A shaft so full of amorous remembering,
Deja vu of yearning’s consummate fit
As I stoop to fondle a hollow in your nape.

As if such hunger coiled up in a man
Wakes some reminiscence we relearn,
I kiss in your flesh your spirit’s kiss

Like Hermes’ son fallen for Salmacis.
Our nature divides only to return.
I’ve known you since the world began.

A woman’s desire now bends to shape
The long elucidation of my spirit.
An arrow homes into its golden ring.

Local Welsh Place Names

As you probably recall, Waldo Williams, one of the poets we read, was from Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, both of which are names that show up on the Haverford and Bryn Mawr campuses, respectively. Knowing this, I decided to look into the origins of some of the Welsh place names in the area.

I found this website about the “Welsh Mainline” (welshmainline.blogspot.com/), which talks about some nearby towns and their origins. Welsh Quakers settled 40,000 acres west of Philadelphia (Delaware, Montgomery and Chester counties). In 1684, they tried to get William Penn to agree to make it a separate county, where government business would be conducted in Welsh, since few of them spoke English. However, their request was unheeded, as the land was divided between different English counties.

A map of the Welsh Tract

When the Pennsylvania Railroad put in the Mainline in the 1800’s, many non-Welsh place names were changed by the railroad in order to give the area more of a unified history and make it more marketable. Following are some local Welsh names and their origins.

Haverford means “goat crossing” in Welsh. As we discussed in class, it was named for the Welsh town Haverfordwest. It was settled in 1681 by Welsh Quakers.

Bryn Mawr was originally Humphreysville, but was renamed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1869. However, its Welsh name does have significance (unlike some other towns’ later Welsh names which are just nonsense). It means “big hill” and is named after an estate in North Wales, the farm of Rowland Ellis, a settler who came to Pennsylvania in 1686 fleeing religious persecution.

Brecon was given its current name in 1981, since it was dedicated by a Lady Brecon. Brecon is the name of the county where the town Bryn Mawr is found in Wales.

Radnor (the township, not the dorm) is named after Radnorshire, Wales. It was founded in 1682 on land from William Penn, and the town grew up around a meetinghouse built by the Welsh settlers in 1718, which is the same meetinghouse that stands there today. Many of the Welsh settlers left to avoid high taxes in the late 1700’s. Supposedly, there are monuments honoring their founding of the town; however, I was unable to find information on exactly what these are.

Saint David’s is named after a local Saint David’s church built in the 1700’s. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales.

Paoli is not a Welsh name, but is actually named after the Corsican general Pasquale Paoli. The center of the town was an inn, built in 1769, and run by a Joshua Evans, whose father had bought the land from William Penn. Evans named his inn Paoli, because the general was given the last toast in a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration at the inn.

Gladwynne is good example of an example of a settlement (although not a census-designated place) that was renamed to fit in with the other Welsh names in the area. It was originally “Merion Square,” which presumably came from Meirionnydd County in Wales. However, this name was apparently not Welsh enough for the casual listener, as it was renamed to Gladwynne in 1891. “Gladwynne” sounds Welsh but doesn’t actually mean anything.

Calan Mai!

This weekend Bryn Mawr continued one of it’s long standing traditions, May Day.
In Wales, May Day (Calan Mai) is a bit different from the May Day we celebrate at Bryn Mawr. Along with the traditional May Pole dancing, the traditional Welsh Calan Mai included lighting ritual fires that sometimes had animals roasted on them. These fires were, according to the BBC page, traditionally made from nine different types of wood collected by participants on May Day, and are a purification ritual that can be traced to druidical sacrifice to the god Beltane. It seems that these fires are less common today, though if you happen to head up to Edinburgh for May Day, the Beltane Fire Society puts on a rather exuberant Beltane festival on Carlton Hill involving these traditional fires, music, and acts that weave their way through the crowds.
Since the first of May is a liminal time zone in Welsh mythology, Calan Mai also involved divination. This divination usually takes the form of divining one’s true love rather than divining battle outcomes. Hawthorn was also used to decorate the outside of houses ((but never the inside- hawthorn is unlucky, then last thing you would want to be when welcoming in the spring and the fertility of the ground).

In some areas of Wales, such as Anglesey, straw dolls were made and hung near girl’s homes on May Eve. These dolls were hung by young men whose sweethearts had left them for another man, and often incited jealousies over the lady’s affections that could lead to fights.

Not all the traditions of Calan Mai are different, however. Like at Bryn Mawr’s May day celebration, dancing around a May pole formed an integral part of the celebrations. The May Pole is traditionally made of birch, though the way in which the dance is performed varies by region. In the South of Wales, the dancing works much the same way it works at Bryn Mawr, with the dancers weaving their ribbons around the pole through their circling dance.

In the north of Wales, however, the may pole ritual is called “Cangen haf”, the summer branch, and requires eighteen young men dressed entirely in white with ribbons attached (rather like the Morris Dancers of May Day look) and two young men to play the Cadi and the Fool. The Cadi carries the “cangen haf” around the town, often decorated with spoons, watches, and other silver borrowed from the people of the village, while the others sing and dance and ask for money from everyone they meet.
Calan Mai also has a May Queen, a young woman who presides over the festival. Traditional Welsh dancing also forms a large part of the festival.

Today, amusement park rides and bouncy castles like thoe ones Bryn Mawr set up this Sunday on Merion and Denbigh Greens also tend to make an appearance, especially since May Day is a bank holiday in the UK and most people have the day off to join in the festivities.


And for some fun, here’s a Monty Python sketch on May Day!

Celtic Knots

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love to cook and bake. Recently I was struck by a hankering for pretzels, but was bored by the traditional pretzel twist before I even started. I began playing around with the dough, and realized that I could kill two birds with one stone by making some delicious Celtic knots.

Batch #1: First try making pretzels, mostly braids, a couple of boring semi-normal ones.


The Triquerta


“Celtic knot mat” – the pattern on the uncooked pretzel is a bit easier to see.

I found a tying tutorial for this knot here.

The baked version.


After researching Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, I was interested to learn more about the Innti literary journal and the other poets that contributed to it, as well as the later movement of poetry accredited to Innti. This movement was defined by the “introduction of modern themes into Irish poetry and a movement away from the traditional nationalist politics,” or as Nuala herself put it, a movement towards writing about “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” This movement has been compared to the Beats poetry movement in the United States, comprised of post-World War II writers with a culture of “rejection of received standards, innovations in style, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexualities, etc.,” including American poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The literary magazine Innti was originally a broadside (one large page printed on one side only), created in 1970, which was continued as a magazine. The editor was a poet named Michael Davitt. Besides Davitt and Ní Dhomhnaill (the only female poet involved), Gabriel Rosenstock and Liam Ó Muirthile have gone on to be well known Irish poets. Defining aspects of this poetry movement were the public readings that made Irish poetry more accessible to the common man, creating excitement in the community. Other poets of this movement than Ní Dhomhnaill, such as Michael Davitt, have embraced translation into English by well-known poets like Paul Muldoon and John Montague. These poets, while committed to revitalizing the Irish language, were determined to avoid “isolationism [and to] bring internationalist energies of a new youth culture” to their poetry. On the subject of translation, Nuala has referred to her allowance of translation by Anglophone poets as a “vocation to the missions” that can motivate the English-speaking Irish population to “pick up the long-lost threads of the language which is so rightly theirs.” The founder of Innti, Davitt, passed away in 2005, just two years before Irish was designated the 23rd official language of the European Union.



The question of language: Postcolonial translation in the bilingual collections of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon (article, requested)







Recently we’ve come upon a few poems featuring “sea-changes”, as The Tempest‘s Ariel would say, such as Iain Crichton Smith’s “Gaelic Stories” and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Parthenogenesis.”

Stories of human beings metamorphosing to and from shapes of sea-dwellers, whether as mer-people or in seal form as selkies, are not unique to Celtic culture, but appear in many folktales worldwide. The folktale motif of the “Animal Bride” is prevalent enough to have a catalogue number in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification index: #402. Admiration for bodies of water and for fish in their own right has featured in many of our poems more specifically. Fish are a subject of respect, such as the salmon as a symbol of wisdom, and the river has appeared as a powerful feminine entity, not to mention close relationships with Lochs and oceans.

The Shannon River, the same that welcomes the salmon in Ni Dhomhnaill's poem

The Shannon River, the same that welcomes the salmon in Ni Dhomhnaill’s poem

Selkies themselves sit at the centers of many northern European stories. According to the Celtic Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore: “in Ireland [and] Scotland, … eating seals was considered a form of cannibalism” (411) From Scandinavia to Ireland, folktales describe otherworldly men and women taking the forms of seals (or is it vice versa?), shedding their seal skins on rocks or onshore, and having relationships with ordinary land-dwelling people. The seal skin must be stolen and hidden or destroyed in order to make a selkie live on land, and often a child of a selkie and a land-dweller unknowingly enables the selkie parent to escape by finding the skin’s hiding place. In some stories the selkie is hunted as a seal and killed after returning to the sea, bringing curses on the killer and family, but in others the ending is perhaps more heartbreaking: the selkie parent (usually a mother) stays forever just out of reach, appearing as a seal from far off to the children but never acknowledging them, as in an Icelandic version:

Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.
In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea.
Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared.
She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:

Where have I to flee?
I’ve seven kids in the sea
And seven kids on dry land.

They say the man grieved much for that. Afterwards, when he went fishing, a seal often swam round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes. Ever since that man always had good catch and was lucky.
When their children went to the shore for a walk, people often saw a seal that swam in the sea not far from them, both when they were on land and near water, and threw motley fish and nice sea shells to them. But their mother never came back.


The aforementioned Encyclopedia also mentions the uncannily human appearance of the seal, engendering human empathy: “Seals do bear some resemblance to human beings, especially in their wild moaning calls and in the direct gaze from their soft dark eyes. Fishermen sometimes spoke or sang to seals, who were thought to speak back, usually begging that no harm come to them or their young” (411).

A Harbour Seal.

A Harbour Seal.

John Sayles’ movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, centers on a displaced Irish family’s selkie story. I won’t ruin it for you in case you want to see it, but suffice it to say it beautifully translates the wonder, tension, and pain of the selkie story onto film. Roan Inish has been dear to me since my childhood, and it has one of the best soundtracks I know. The “Selke Song,” a lullaby used in the film, is actually song called “An Mhaighdean Mhara,” which is a song about a mermaid.

mermaid's song












(lyrics and translation given under the video)

The selkie story is deeply tied to longing, displacement, and an appeal to otherworldly origins to explain traits in families. Poets choosing to write about selkies (especially in Crichton Smith’s case, as is the form of his poem) need only mention the barest outline of the folktale, and their poems are granted access to a very old, unique, and complex mixture of circumstances and emotions.

New Irish Singer Hozier

I never know for sure if I’m actually up with music trends or not, but my friend introduced me to Hozier the other day, and I wanted to share some of his music with you all.

Photo via Billboard.com.

Photo via Billboard.com.

For those of you who don’t know, Hozier is the stage name of Andrew Hozier-Byrne, a blues/soul musician (singer-songwriter) from Bray, County Wicklow in Ireland.

In his most famous single, “Take Me To Church,” Hozier sings of a tension between his feelings and his upbringing (in Catholic Ireland), and the accompanying music video chronicles the abuse of a homosexual couple at the hands of their community. The song went viral on YouTube and Reddit after it was released last July, and Hozier’s fanbase and fame has been growing since then, with the release of his second EP.

Watch the video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYSVMgRr6pw

According to some interviews Hozier has done, although he himself states that the Catholic Church isn’t the cause of the human rights violations about which he sings, he’s adamant about the need for societal change, on a person-to-person level. NYMag’s The Cut did an interview with him, where you can learn more about his personal influences (including James Joyce!), his stance on LGBT rights, his hair (?), and the way he views his musical career.

Billboard caught up with his record manager to answer questions, which you can read here.

Huffington Post’s Gay Voices also wrote about “Take Me To Church” and the music video, which they compared to the Russian anti-gay policies that made headlines last fall before the Sochi Winter Olympics.

And here’s a live version of his song “Cherry Wine,” which may be my personal favorite.