At its height, Claddagh had 468 thatched cottages, which were home to 500 families of fishermen who plied their trade sailing in the famous “Galway Hooker” boats. Gradually, younger generations moved out of Claddagh for “big city life” in Galway, causing a decline in the fishing industry that had sustained the village. In 1927, a tuberculosis outbreak hit the village hard. Deemed to be a health hazard, an order was given to evacuate the village and have all the thatched cottages razed (eventually to be replaced by more modern homes). The last of the original thatched cottages was destroyed in 1934.
Claddagh still has a “king”, elected by the populace on an annual basis. The last “true” king, Martin Oliver, died in 1972. Today’s Claddagh king serves just a ceremonial role.
Claddagh is most famous for its wonderful namesake ring. Legend has it that over 400 years ago, a young man, by the name of Richard Joyce, was kidnapped by pirates while he was on his way to the West Indies. He was eventually sold to a rich goldsmith, who taught him the craft of Jewelry making. Upon his release, Joyce returned to Galway and set up his own shop. Soon, he began designing his own jewelry, including the famous Claddagh ring. His design of the ring included three elements; a heart, intended to represent love; topped by a crown to represent loyalty; and surrounded by hands to represent friendship. As the ring’s reputation grew, folks began to use it to signify their marital status - i.e. with the heart pointing out towards the finger tips, it indicated the person was single (and looking for love); with it pointing up the arm to the person’s own heart, it indicated that they had found love and were married. Tradition has it that you can not buy a Claddagh Ring for yourself. Someone who loves you has to give it to you. Many times, Claddagh Rings are passed down through succeeding generations.
The oldest existing Claddagh ring jeweler in Galway is the Thomas Dillon shop (established in 1750) in the city’s Latin Quarter. It includes a small museum depicting the history of the ring down through the centuries. This shop is a fun place just to visit, unless, of course, you’re also in the market to buy the love of your life a Claddagh ring.