Contemplating the Claddagh

Design by Claire Soohoo

No one is ever surprised that I am over 80 percent Irish. Between having a birthday on Saint Patrick’s Day and developing a painful sunburn each time I forgo sunblock, my ancestry is far from mysterious. But, in the rare case that somebody doesn’t pick up on these obvious clues, they can resolve any questions about my heritage by looking down at my Claddagh ring. 

The small, gold band wrapped around my ring finger is a traditional piece of Irish jewelry. It features two hands holding a heart, on top of which rests a detailed crown. These symbols are rooted in the fede ring, a Roman ring used to represent religious loyalty. Although the name “fede” comes from the Italian phrase mani in fede, meaning hands in faith, the Claddagh ring did not inherit the religious symbolism of its predecessor. Instead, the hands on the Claddagh ring represent friendship, while the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty. Originally, Irish brides in Galway used these symbols on engagement and wedding rings, but by the mid-1830s, single women also began wearing the design. 

There are four different ways to wear the ring, each with its own meaning. When a woman wears the ring on her right hand with the heart facing outwards, it indicates that she is single. When she wears it on the same hand but with the heart facing inward, she is in a relationship. If she wears the ring with the heart facing outwards on her left hand, she is engaged. And, finally, if she wears the ring with an inward-facing heart on her left hand, she is married. Of course, not everyone follows this specific code, nor do these meanings hold much significance to non-Irish people. But, if you go to Ireland with a Claddagh ring, my advice is to memorize these details before you arbitrarily slide it on a random finger. 

My mom gave me my Claddagh ring when I was in seventh grade. It was an old gift from her high school boyfriend, and she found it by chance when we were cleaning out her closet. As I slipped it on my right ring finger, I thought about all the times my mother had done the same. I put the ring on with the heart facing outward, fantasizing about the day that I would turn it around, just like my mother did when her boyfriend gifted it to her 40 years ago.

Eventually, my fingers grew, swelling in size after several breaks from basketball and field hockey. The ring no longer fit on my right ring finger, so I retired the shimmering band to my jewelry stand, where it remained for the next five years. 

In the meantime, I largely forgot about my Claddagh ring. I acquired other jewelry, but as much as I loved my Pura Vida wave ring (the hottest design in 2018), it didn’t have the same sentimental value. Over the years, I built up a collection of rings, and when it was time to come to Yale, I chose my favorites from the bunch. The Claddagh remained buried under necklace chains and bracelet charms. 

When I came home last year for Thanksgiving Break, my fingers weren’t lacking decoration. On my right hand, I had a simple metal band that I thrifted and a thick ring from my trip to Seattle. On my left, I wore the ring my mother got me as a graduation present: a sterling silver olive branch that snaked around my index finger. Still, I wanted to add to my collection. The problem was that I wanted something meaningful—something that I could tell a story about. 

That’s when I came across the Claddagh. It was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for: a memento that would remind me of my roots—both cultural and maternal—while away from home. Unsurprisingly, the ring still did not fit on my right ring finger, but I decided to disregard the Claddagh’s rules and try my left hand. Although not a perfect fit (it still mildly cuts off my circulation on hot summer days), the ring slid on without too much difficulty, and it has remained there ever since. 

I’ve thought about ordering a Claddagh ring in a larger size for my right index finger, but it wouldn’t feel right. With my mom’s ring on my finger, I carry around her teenage experiences. When I fiddle with it in lecture, I feel the ghost of her doing the same thing all those years ago. When I flip it around to see what it looks like with the heart facing inward, I imagine my mother in the same position, waiting for someone special enough to make the change permanent. And, when I flip it back to its standard orientation on my finger, I imagine my mother making the same adjustment after breaking up with the person who gave it to her. The ring is a small, tangible piece of the woman I came from and has now become a small, tangible piece of me.

In the past year, I’ve switched out several rings, matching the colors of the metal to my outfit or my eyeshadow, but the Claddagh stays put. Excluding the few times per week that I take it off to go rock climbing (don’t ridicule me; it’s fun), you will not catch me without my ring. And, yes, while the ring’s placement technically makes it look like I’m engaged, most people won’t even understand. 

Leave a Reply