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.”
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.
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.