Not strictly Celtic, though very Irish, the Claddagh is a symbol of love (symbolized by the heart), loyalty (the crown), and friendship (the hands). It is almost certainly derived from the mani in fede or “hands in faith” ring, also known as a fede ring or faith ring, which was popular in central and northern Italy during the Renaissance as a betrothal ring but which was used in early Roman times as well.Thus, the origin of the Claddagh is likely found in a Roman design, to which the heart and crown were added later. Nevertheless, the Claddagh symbol has acquired its own group of origin legends.
In one version, Margareth Joyce married a Spanish merchant named Domingo de Rona and went with him to Spain. Although he unfortunately died, he fortunately left Margareth a good sum of money which she brought with her when she returned to Ireland. In 1596, she married Oliver Ogffrench, the mayor of Galway (the largest city near to the village of Claddagh, on the west coast of Ireland) and then used her money to construct bridges. Out of gratitude for her charity, an eagle dropped the Claddagh ring into her lap.
In another version, a native of Galway named Richard Joyce (or Joyes) was betrothed in Ireland but captured by an Algerine Corsair while aboard a ship bound for the West Indies. He was sold as a slave to a wealthy Turk, a goldsmith who taught him the profession during his 14 year stay in Algiers. When William III ascended the throne, he demanded the release of all British subjects detained in Algiers. With that, Richard Joyce was set free, but his Moorish captor offered him not only half his property but his daughter in marriage as well if Joyce would stay. However, Joyce declined, returned to Ireland, presented his betrothed the ring that he had created while in captivity, and they were married.The Claddagh ring has even made the jump into mainstream popular culture in the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy’s vampire lover Angel is a native of Galway) and in movies such as Ladder 49 and Dead Again.
As a tattoo, the Claddagh has appeared as an armband, is sometimes accompanied by Celtic knotwork, and sometimes also has a scroll with a name in it. While the origin of this symbol is likely lost to time, the meaning is clear. It is a pledge of friendship, loyalty, and love and a message that the bearer is ‘spoken for’.