The Claddagh's distinctive design features two hands clasping a heart and usually surmounted by a crown. These elements symbolize the qualities of love (the heart), friendship (the hands), and loyalty (the crown). A "Fenian" Claddagh ring, without a crown, is a slightly different take on the design but has not achieved the level of popularity of the crowned version. Claddagh rings are relatively popular among the Irish and those of Irish heritage, such as Irish Americans, as cultural symbols and as friendship, engagement and wedding rings.
While Claddagh rings are sometimes used as friendship rings, they are most commonly used as engagement and wedding rings. Mothers sometimes give these rings to daughters when they come of age. There are several mottos and wishes associated with the ring, such as: "Let love and friendship reign." In Ireland, the United States, Canada, and other parts of the Irish diaspora, the Claddagh is sometimes handed down mother-to-eldest daughter or grandmother-to-granddaughter.
According to Irish author Colin Murphy, a Claddagh ring was worn with the intention of conveying the wearer's relationship status:
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips: the wearer is single and may be looking for love.
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is in a relationship.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips: the wearer is engaged.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is married.
There are other localised variations and oral traditions, involving the hand and the finger on which the Claddagh is worn. Folklore about the ring is relatively recent, not ancient, with "very little native Irish writing about the ring". Hence, the difficulty today in finding any source that describes or explains the traditional ways of wearing the ring.