A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What do claddagh rings symbolize?

October 8, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

My wife gave me an Irish claddagh ring as a gift. These rings show two hands clasping a crowned heart. There is supposed to be a tradition as to which way the crown is to point — one way if you're single, another way if you're taken. We have not been able to find out which direction is correct for either circumstance. With your infinite wisdom and resources, maybe you can help us.

SDStaff Melis replies:

Well, I may not be Cecil, but I think I can help.

I learned from a couple places that make claddagh rings that when you just want to wear the ring, but aren't attached, it should be on your right hand, with the heart facing outwards (pointing to your fingertip). If you want to wear it as a friendship/engagement ring, then wear it on the same hand but with the heart inwards (just turn the thing around). For a wedding ring, or as the quote goes, "showing two hearts that have joined forever," wear it on the left hand, heart facing inwards.

STStaff Dogster concurred, saying that he's dated a lot of Irish women, and that was how they wore their claddagh rings.

And now for the interesting stuff — how the claddagh ring got its name, and what each symbol means. The legend goes that over 300 years ago, in the fishing village of Claddagh (off the west coast of Ireland), a man named Richard Joyce was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to a Turkish goldsmith. After a time Joyce earned his freedom. Having learned a bit of the goldsmith trade, he returned to Claddagh and created the ring. (Some versions of the story add a lady who faithfully waited for her true love while he was away, but since this was primarily told by vendors, I discounted it as a way to sell more jewelry.)

Is the entire legend pure bunk? I asked SDStaff McCaffertA, who said: "For what it's worth, a lot of the legend holds together. Joyce is the 'Smith' or 'Jones' of Galway. Being sold into slavery in the Caribbean was a fairly common fate, and the earliest marked rings do seem to be stamped RI. So this stuff might be true. On the other hand, this is but one of a whole series of clasped-hands rings, and the hand-and-heart motif seems to run throughout the whole Celtic fringe: Brittany, Wales, Galicia, etc."

As for the symbols of the claddagh, the heart means love, the hands holding the heart mean friendship, and the crown over the heart means loyalty or fidelity.

This probably leaves one question in your mind: how do you pronounce claddagh?

Beats me. I say "clad-daw," many people say "clad-ah," and Dogster says people out in New Jersey say "clay-day." But McCaffertA seems to have the best handle on things: "You now generally hear "clad-ah," but both ring and town should be pronounced "clod-uh." Gaelic never made the great vocalic shift."

I hope you enjoy the ring … and that you wear it in good health and true love.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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