Storytelling is an important facet of Irish culture. Their tales descend from olden days, when the first Celtic societies settled the rugged, green Irish landscapes. Perhaps the most recognized legend and emblem of Ireland, next to St. Patrick’s story and shamrock, is the beautiful symbol of the Claddagh . . .
First published in March 2017 on The Writers Reverie Podcast as Irish Storytelling: Legends and Love.
Storytelling is an important facet of Irish culture. Their tales descend from olden days, when the first Celtic societies settled the rugged, green Irish landscapes.
But over time, they were conquered by invaders from Gaul (modern France) and slowly, the population of original ancient Celtic inhabitants shrunk, becoming the “little people” of legend.
Whenever something odd happened, the developing Irish culture blamed the wee folk—leprechauns and fairies, giving birth to tales of mischief, delighting generation after generation. Fanciful stories of faerie folk and little green people of questionable temper have their place in the realms of make-believe, cherished side-by-side with the Bible and books brought to Irish shores by St. Patrick.
“Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books . . . tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had one tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.”
How the Irish Saved Civilization
Perhaps the most recognized legend and emblem of Ireland, next to St. Patrick’s story and shamrock, is the beautiful symbol of the Claddagh. It is historically worn as a ring of betrothal. Though there are many tales tracing back to its roots, it’s largely said to originate from the small fishing village of Claddagh. Formerly located just outside the walls of Galway, it is now part of that big city. But, since the 17th century, this told and re-told tale from the old town keeps its history alive with distinction.
The first known Claddagh rings, fashioned for betrothal and marriage in the Galway region, is credited to a goldsmith, Bartholomew Fallon, prior to 1700. But silversmith, Richard Joyce, captivated storyteller’s imaginations when he was captured and sold into slavery by Algerian Corsairs on a seafaring trip to the West Indies in 1675. While enslaved for fourteen years by a Moorish goldsmith, he designed the Claddagh image of clasped hands, heart, and crown. King William III sent emissaries to win the release of all British slaves, and eventually Joyce returned to his Claddagh village and married. His story and ring design spread throughout the region, affording him great success as a goldsmith for the remainder of his life.
During the Victorian era, the Claddagh ring grew in popularity throughout England and the British Isles, vigorously marketed throughout the 19th century. By the 20th century, the symbol reached jewelers on American shores. Today it is worn in gold and silver designs as rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, plus varied décor motifs by millions worldwide.
Adding a bit of dialogue and lyrical language to the re-telling of the tale, here’s my spin on the story—names changed—and just a smidge of melodrama. So, pour yourself a cuppa green tea and enjoy!
The Legend of the Claddagh
Once upon a time, in an Irish coastal village called Claddagh, lived a lovely young lass with locks of red, and emerald green eyes, named Bridgid. She loved a young man named Seamus, of handsome face and noble character. Together, they bound themselves in a pledge of marriage, clasping hands and hearts, with the blessing of their families and the joy of their village surrounding them.
Seamus was a fisherman. He wanted to give his bride a comfortable home, and worked hard to secure enough money to the purpose. If he went away for one more summer season of fruitful fishing, he’d earn enough so they could marry and settle in for a cozy winter together in their own cottage.
One early morning in June, the lovely lass with the emerald eyes, bid farewell to her fisherman with the handsome face.
“How I hate to see you go,” she said.
“I am your lover, true,” he said.
“May fair winds on you blow, “she said.
“I will come back for you,” he said.
And he was away.
But, later that day the boat returned with nary a fisherman to be found. It drifted into the harbor holding few clues to help the village solve the mystery of the missing fishermen. But, it was clear enough—the fishermen fathers and sons of Claddagh had been abducted by slave raiders. Slave raiders! It was a sure and tragic loss to everyone in the small community.
Tears welled in Bridgid’s sorrowful, emerald green eyes. “’Tis a shame,” said her mother, “Her love she will see no more.”
“Fear not, Mother,” Bridgid said, defiantly tossing her red locks of curly hair, “My lover will come for me!” She feared the worst, but steeled herself with hope. He promised to return to her, after all.
In fact, Seamus was alive, though in bondage, sold as a slave to a sultan across the sea. Being that he possessed an artistic bent, he was let to train in the craft of the goldsmith. For many years, he labored for his master. The sultan came to favor the Claddagh lad and offered the hand of his own daughter to the young man in marriage. But, Seamus refused the gift.
“How can you refuse such a gift as I offer?” The sultan was indignant.
“Because,” said the lad, “I hold in my hands the heart of the girl who waits for me in Claddagh village. A queen of maidens. I shall always go back to her, as I promised.” Then, using his skills as a goldsmith, he fashioned a ring, with a crown atop a heart, held gently in two clasped hands. The crown meant Faithfulness, the hands, Friendship, and the heart, Love.
Meanwhile, the lovely lass, Bridgid, grew older, waiting patiently for her lover to come for her. Everyday, morning and evening, she lingered on the dock from where she last saw her love’s handsome, noble face. Her mother shuddered with lament at the loss of her daughter’s youthful bloom, and prospects for home and family. A maiden daughter—Oh! The shame of it!
Until the day a widower of some means knocked on their door. “I find I desire a wife, good Mistress, your daughter may do just fine.”
Boldly, the lass lashed out in response. “No, never!” Her eyes burned. “My lover will come for me!”
Over the sea and so very far away, the sultan watched his favorite lad closely. He was amazed at the many ways Seamus showed himself true to his claim of a love left behind at every opportunity. This impressed the sultan who had never known love could be so impenetrably true. After many years of service, he released the former fisherman and sent him on a journey to return home—and find his love.
After many months sailing over oceans deep, battling storm and gale and sea serpent assaults, the freed fishermen landed, once again, on the Irish shore of Claddagh. There to meet him, waiting daily as she did by the wharf’s edge, was his lovely lady of the red locks and emerald eyes. Onto her finger, he slipped the golden ring he’d made—Faithfulness, Friendship, and Love—the firm foundation for life-long bliss.
Their vows sealed under sunshine and sapphire skies in the village square. Fiddle and harp set feet to dancing in celebration. The blessing of family and joy of their friends surrounding them.
And by the bliss of a kiss she sighed, “My lover has come for me.”
Christ is our Great Fisher-of-Men Lover
I love the metaphor of Christ's Claddagh,
His love, the daily friendship of His Presence in my life,
and His faithful promise that He is loyal to His Bride
and will one day return for her.
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