The famous Claddagh jewelry design, which features a heart with a crown on top, held by two hands, is most commonly attributed to a Galway man named Richard Joyce. He is said to have created it as a tribute to his Irish love while being held prisoner in Algiers in the early 1800’s. Joyce was allegedly captured on the high seas and sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith in Algiers. He was apparently in impressive slave. After learning the jewelry craft, his master offered him half his wealth and the hand of his daughter in marriage. But when William III was able to obtain the release of all British and Irish prisoners held in Algiers, Joyce turned down his master’s offer and returned to marry is love in Galway.
But other legends have been attached to the Claddagh design as well. One tells of an Irish prince who fell in love with a servant and then created the classic design with hands representing friendship, a crown for loyalty and a heart to express his love of the girl. The prince’s father was supposedly so move by the show of love that he blessed the union between his son and the servant.
The Joyce clan of Galway figures in another, more fanciful legend of the Claddagh design. According to it, Margareth Joyce married a Spanish merchant and followed him to Spain. Upon his death she inherited his considerable fortune. Margareth returned to her native Ireland to marry Galway’s mayor. With her first husband’s money, she paid for the creation of several bridges throughout Connacht. An eagle is said to have dropped the first Claddagh ring into her lap as a thanks from the heavens.
A variety of explanations have risen up around the famous “heart and hands" Claddagh design:
Fishermen of the Claddagh created the design as a signal to be put on sails and the sides of their fishing ships. Anyone found fishing in their waters off Galway without the signal would be put to death. It was then known as the symbol of the “fishing Kings of Claddagh."
Dublin City had it-s own “Fenian Claddagh" design, which included the familiar heart and hands, but no crown.
One legend links the Claddagh design to the Holy Trinity imagery of the traditional Irish shamrock. According to it, the crown represents the holy father, the left hand the son of God and the right hand the Holy Ghost.