Wearing Your Heart on Your Knuckles- Irish Claddagh Rings

Irish history and heritage is a complex beast. In the twenty first century, the great bulk of the best bits of our culture have either been taken and twisted by political movements or else turned into tacky cliches by a tourism board desperate for American dollars.

However, one of the few symbols that remains a genuine expression and reflection of our culture is that of the claddagh ring. It is little known outside of the Emerald Isle- perhaps a reason why it has managed to have survived in its original state for so long.

The claddagh ring (in Irish Gaelic fáinne Chladaigh) is a simple gold or silver band with three adornments. Joining the band are two hands (to represent friendship), sealed at a heart (to represent love), perched atop which is a crown (to represent loyalty).

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However, it is not merely the physical components from which the claddagh ring gets its beauty but rather than complex social dance it makes on different fingers depending on the wearer’s romantic situation.

A girl who wears it on her right hand, pointing towards her finger tips is professing herself single and with a heart reaching out for love.

On the right hand, pointing towards the wrist, she is being courted.

On the left hand, pointing towards her finger tips is announcing she is engaged to be married.

On the left hand, pointing towards her wrist, her heart is fully closed and captured as she is now married.

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This miniature code has all the rich symbolism and grace of Victorian ladies flashing their fans in various patterns to communicate their romantic status.

Whilst such a code of four different ring positions may seem too abstract and complex to bear any import in real life, as a child growing up in the Irish countryside I remember clearly the solemn importance it would have to the women in my family- all of whom followed the code with an almost strictly religious significance. Perhaps like a modern day update of a relationship status on Facebook, the position of a woman’s claddagh would spark much gossip, intrigue or sad reflection around the kitchen table.

My younger cousins and aunts were conscious of the power their claddagh could have in flattering or riling a suitor- turning it outward to suggest they were single after an argument could spark jealousy and repentance in their man. Yet, it was also an important symbol on more serious occasions, with one woman in my family in a ceremonious and dignified way slipping the ring from her left to right finger upon occasion of her divorce- the final seal and symbol much more intensely felt than any court decree.

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