Anyone who's been in a museum gift shop in Ireland knows that the claddagh ring is an important symbol. But, as is the case with most symbols, its true meaning has been clouded and changed with time. Simply put, this style of ring is much more than a souvenir.
The claddagh ring as you know it is said to come from an Irish fishing village by the same name. Countless romantic legends swirl around the ring's origins. One story suggests that a poor young man first created it out of stolen pieces of gold for his faraway lover, while another states that the first claddagh ring literally fell into a woman's lap, dropped by an eagle flying overhead.
The earliest claddagh rings have been traced back to the late 1600s or early 1700s, but they didn't get their name until much later. Originally, these rings were just another version of a larger (and much older) jewelry style known as fede rings. Designed to resemble two clasped hands, these rings rose to prominence in medieval Ireland and England as markers of commitment.
It only makes sense, then, that claddagh rings came to represent something similarly binding. Namely, they were worn as engagement rings throughout the 19th century in Ireland, passed down from generation to generation.
In order to understand why they signified commitment, we have to break down what each part of the ring symbolizes. Where the clasped hands stand for friendship, the heart that they hold represents romantic love. The crown that usually appears on top of the heart is a sign of loyalty. Viewed as a whole, the ring represents a perfect union and lasting relationship, built on passion, trust, and care. As anyone who watched Buffy now knows, it turns out that Angel's explanation of the claddagh is pretty spot-on.
That's not where the claddagh's symbolism ends: How one wears their ring is heavy with meaning, too. If worn as an engagement ring, the ring's heart should point toward the wearer, to show that their heart is closed and belongs to another. Once the wearer is married, they can move the ring to their left hand's fourth finger.
If you're wearing your claddagh ring as more of a fashion statement (and you really want to signal your singlehood) it's said that you should wear your ring with the heart pointing away from you, to show that you're open to a relationship.
Nowadays, it's not unheard of for someone to still wear a claddagh ring as an engagement or promise ring, but it's much more common to see them worn simply as an expression of Irish pride. Whatever reason you choose to wear a claddagh ring, and whichever direction the heart points, wear it knowing that it's the stuff of legend — even if you did pick it up in a gift shop.