I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Romance of the Claddagh

As far as my heritage goes, I’m only marginally Irish. The Emerald Isle calls to me, nevertheless. After all, it’s a land of many things that appeal to me, like castles, lore, and Celtic saints.

I love a good Claddagh ring story, too.

How can I not? These traditional Irish rings are as symbolic as they are lovely. Through the years, they’ve been used to express relational commitment (from friendship to marriage) and they’ve come to represent pride in Irish heritage. Claddagh rings are also precious heirlooms, often passed down through the generations.

I’m a writer, so I love this sort of symbolism. Family, romance, culture all bound in one sentimental object—that’s romance-writing gold, and I’m not talking about the leprechaun kind. Claddagh rings are the whole package. No Irish-set chick flick worth its popcorn would (SPOILER ALERT!) dare leave one out of its big proposal scene.

(I don't care if it's cliche. I love it anyway.)

I don’t own a Claddagh ring, but I’m guessing we’ve all seen them before. Its unique design features two hands (symbolizing friendship) clasping a heart (love) topped by a crown (loyalty).

And when we see a Claddagh ring, we can tell something relationship-wise about the wearer.

When worn on the right ring finger with the heart pointing to the fingertip, the wearer is not romantically involved.

On the same finger with the ring pointing towards the wearer, it suggests he or she is romantically involved.

When the ring is on the ring finger of the left hand, it means the person is married or engaged.

Something this emblematic must have an ancient history, of course. The rings must be a tradition steeped in Celtic culture.

Well, not quite.

Claddagh rings were first created in Claddagh, Galway around 1700—supposedly in the silver shop of one Richard Joyce, whose mark appears on one of the oldest Claddagh rings known. According to legend, however, Mr. Joyce was a fisherman before he was a silver smith. He was minding his own business out at sea when he was captured by pirates. The cutthroats sold him as a slave to a Turkish goldsmith.

Poor Joyce was doomed. Would he ever return to Galway, or see his family again?

Despite his grief and fear, he must have made an impression on his master, because the Turk grew so fond of Joyce that he trained him in the craft. Joyce excelled, but he didn't forget the relationships and home he left behind.
Eventually, King William III arranged a release for captives, but the Turk begged Joyce to remain with him. He even offered his (surely attractive) daughter’s hand in marriage. Ever loyal to his homeland, however, Joyce declined, returning to Galway and the life he’d left behind. (Well, except the fishing part.)

View from Dún Aengus in Galway
Perhaps Joyce fashioned the symbolic rings to honor the things that kept him going during those years stolen from him by slavery: loyalty to his home, the bonds of family, and the joy of friendship. Perhaps Joyce didn’t invent the rings—which came to be known after the town of their origin—at all. Other rings of a similar style exist from the same time period bearing the marks of other smiths.

Their stories just aren’t as dashing.

Regardless of who fashioned the first Claddagh ring, they were slow to catch on until the mid-1800’s. By the time Queen Victoria received one in 1849, Dublin goldsmiths were also creating them. They served as heirlooms, passed from a mother to her daughter on her wedding day. Their popularity has increased exponentially, and today they’re worn the world over, by Irish and non-Irish alike.

Claddagh rings serve as a reminder that friendship, love, and loyalty are key components in our most important relationships. Like wedding and promise rings, they are tangible prompts that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and we are bound to uphold our promises—to our spouse, to our children, to ourselves.

And through the legend, they remind me that despite the difficult circumstances I face in life, God is with me. Just as Joyce was inspired to make a pretty ring to honor the values he clung to while enslaved, God uses all of my dark days for His good, and I'm more mindful of His blessings.

Regardless of whether or not Mr. Joyce invented Claddagh rings, I like to think of him in his shop, working at his trade. In my imaginings, he’s toasty warm as he hovers around the forge, belly full and heart thankful. And he’s smiling as he creates something meaningful, inspired by a time of loss.