The Claddagh is a traditional design that symbolises love (the heart), friendship (the hands) and loyalty (the crown). Originally worn as a type of fede ring, you can today find the Claddagh symbol on rings, earrings and pendants. The design is believed to have originated from a small fishing village near Galway, and has been produced and worn since at least 1700.
Claddagh rings are traditionally presented as engagement or wedding rings, and in addition to these, nowadays we may also wear them as a symbol of our Irish heritage or simply as a symbol of commitment and love.
While the Claddagh falls under Celtic symbolism, Celtic iconography in stonework, art work and metal work, has been around for much longer than 1700. In fact, the Celts began arriving in Ireland and Britain from Central Europe at some time between 800-400BC - long before Christianity. There is debate as to whether they invaded or simply assimilated over a few centuries, and evidence seems to point to the latter.
Ireland and Britain, which were in the Bronze age, were now introduced to Iron, and new ways or melting and working such metal. Along with new tools and weapons, the Celts also introduced Ireland to kingship, kingdoms and power. Later Roman and Anglo Saxon invasions would push the Celts largely out of England and further into Ireland and Scotland, where the culture would continue to flourish, largely free from these outside influences.
So what about their art and jewellery? Celtic art of the European Iron Age preferred highly stylised, geometric decoration: knot work, spirals, triskeles, key patterns and zoomorphic designs with a sense of balance are central to Celtic design. In 432AD, St Patrick arrived in Ireland and so did Christianity. Druids were killed en-mass, and Catholicism would become the dominant religion, with may Celtic traditions being incorporated into the new religion.
The harp remained an important part of Irish and Scottish courtly life for centuries, and a harpist could always be found in the entourage of an Irish king. The harp was known as cláirseach in Irish and clàrsach in Scottish Gaelic.
The shamrock is a three leaved young sprig, traditionally used as a symbol of Ireland. It is believed that St Patrick used the plant to symbolise of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), although this link did not appear in writing until the 1700s.
The Celtic cross is a high cross with a nimbus or ring, with the earliest surviving examples dating to 9th century Scotland and Ireland. Further notable Celtic crosses survive in Wales, Cornwall and Northumbria.
An ancient symbol, which to the Celtic peoples represented Earth, wind and water, and for the later Christians, the Holy Trinity. The trinity knot is infinite, with no obvious beginning or end, and so the devotion to faith is infinite. The trinity knot can also symbolise infinite romantic love, and the wish to love, honour and obey.
Celtic knot work, which can come in many forms and styles but like the trinity has no beginning or end, is symbolic of the never-ending cycle of life and the seasons, and the constancy of love (and later faith).