Claddagh: a ring, a king and fishermen with boats

If there’s one small Irish community that’s made a name for itself, it’s the Claddagh. Not only does it boast its own ring, but it also has its own king. Nowadays, the area is a sought-after property location in the south of Galway’s city centre. The Claddagh has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a traditional fishing village.

Map of the Claddagh area (photo: Claddagh boatmen)

Once upon a time

There’s no trace left of the thatched cottages that once lined the streets of the Claddagh (pronounced as ‘clah-dah’). Most of the traditional boats that used to form the fishing fleet of the community are gone as well. Modernity has transformed the old village overlooking Galway Bay into a rather bleak and nondescript modern city neighbourhood.

Yet the name Claddagh has retained its nostalgic appeal. Otherness may have something to do with it. The Claddagh – An Cladach in Irish – means ‘flat stony shore’. The area is located where the river Corrib, which flows through Galway city, meets the salty waters of Galway Bay. Separated from the town on the other side of the river, the close-knit community of the Claddagh lived outside the city walls and kept to themselves.

Nearly all men in the community were fishers. It’s been estimated that by the early nineteenth century, over 800 Claddagh fishermen made their living from the sea, using 80 boats to fish for herring. The boats – called Galway Hookers – were made of oak and carried distinctive maroon sails on a single mast. Nowadays, these traditional boats only appear at festivals and boat races in the Bay.

Galway Hookers sailing Galway Bay (photo:

Distinctive dress

The women of the Claddagh kept busy as well, sorting and selling the day’s catch at the Fish Market on the other side of the river. The market was held near the Spanish Arch, a sixteenth-century structure that was once part of the city walls. Here, the women of the Claddagh brought their baskets and bargained their prices, while catching up on the news from across the river.

As for dress, all clothes were homemade and typical for the village. John Leech, an Englishman who visited the Claddagh in 1859, wrote: “When we arrived, the men were out to sea; but the women, in their bright red petticoats, descending half-way down the uncovered leg, their cloaks worn like the Spanish Mantilla, and of divers colours, their headkerchiefs and hoods, were grouped among the old grey ruins where the fish market is held, and formed a tableau not to be forgotten.” (A Little Tour in Ireland, pp. 38-39)

Claddagh girl in traditional dress, 1913 (photography: Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon-Alba)

King of the Claddagh

Despite the fact that Galway was under English rule for many centuries, the Claddagh elected its own King, which was an unpaid job with no perks. It took a trustworthy man to gain this title, as he was responsible for law and order in the village, for settling disputes, for making important community decisions, and for leading the fishing fleet on a ‘hooker’ that had white rather than maroon sails.

The authority and power of the King was absolute. He could also order to have the nets and boat destroyed of any stranger found fishing in Galway Bay. This implies that the Claddagh fishermen claimed exclusive fishing rights to the Bay, as a ‘stranger’ was anybody who didn’t live in the village.

The last King of the Claddagh ‘old style’ passed away in 1972. Today, it’s an honorary role comparable to the ceremonial tasks of a town mayor. The current King is 85-year old Michael Lynskey who was born and raised in the community. He has been the Claddagh’s symbolic representative for nearly twenty years.

Claddagh ring

Besides electing their own King, the community is also known for its Claddagh ring. The ring is a variation of the old Roman fede ring (‘hands joined in loyalty’) and shows two clasped hands holding a crowned heart. The ring was an heirloom, passed down from mother to daughter through many generations. Symbolizing love, friendship and loyalty, the ring also indicated a woman’s marital status.

Unmarried women wore the ring on the right hand. If the point of the heart pointed towards the fingertips, the wearer was available for courting. When the heart pointed towards the wrist, the wearer was being courted or engaged. Married women wore the ring on the left hand with the heart pointing in, which signified that they were no longer available for marriage.

The Claddagh ring came into fashion in the seventeenth century. According to legend, it was first designed by a young Claddagh man named Richard Joyce. On his way to the West Indies in the late 1600s, Joyce was kidnapped by pirates. His new master was a Moorish goldsmith who taught him the trade. After regaining his freedom, Joyce returned to Galway, carrying a golden ring in his pocket that he had fashioned for his long-awaiting sweetheart.

The ring became traditionally associated with the Claddagh community. It’s still worn as a friendship ring, engagement ring or wedding ring by the Irish and other nationalities around the world. Famous wearers included Queen Victoria and Princess Grace of Monaco, and – of a completely different order – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kim Kardashian.

claddagh ring
Golden Claddagh ring (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Royalcladdagh)

Back to the future

Nowadays, the Claddagh no longer consists of fishermen living in thatched cottages. When the fishing industry declined in the early twentieth century, the villagers had no choice but to find work elsewhere. Life became even more difficult in 1927, when tuberculosis broke out and spread through the community.

Soon, the thatched homes of the fishermen were declared a health hazard and the villagers were re-housed in other parts of the city. Demolition of the old homes began, with the last Claddagh cottage razed to the ground in 1934. Council houses and other modern structures now line the streets of the community that’s still centered around the Dominican Church of St. Mary on the Hill.

It seems like a tragic demise of a centuries-old Irish fishing village. Yet the property boom of the last decades has given the Claddagh a boost. As the area is still located within walking distance of the city centre and offers great views across Galway Bay, the Claddagh has become an expensive place to live.

claddagh church
Fishermen and the Claddagh church St. Mary’s on the Hill, 1910 (photo: public domain)

Chilling out

There are still plenty of reasons to visit the Claddagh. The old harbour is now home to a large population of swans that have become a regular tourist attraction. On the other side of the river, the area near the Spanish Arch where the Claddagh women used to sell their fish, is a great spot to sit, chill out and soak up a few rays of sunshine.

Another attraction is a replica Claddagh cottage that’s part of the Claddagh Arts Centre. ‘Katie’s Claddagh Cottage’ has whitewashed walls made of lime mortar and local stone and a thatched roof resting on bog oak rafters. The cottage, which is located on Upper Fairhill Road, is a testimony to the traditional life in the Claddagh.

Those who prefer living tradition to a recreation of the past can attend the ‘Blessing of the Boats’. Every year in mid-August, near the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, the boats of the Claddagh are blessed by a priest. The ceremony goes back many ages, offering a small glimpse into the Claddagh’s remarkable past.

© Annemarie Latour

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