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Irish Roots in Iceland

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Genetic studies in Iceland reveal about 20% of the males and 63% of the females have Irish ancestry. There are many names of people and places in Iceland that derive from our Irish ancestry. St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and celebrates the heritage and culture of the Irish. Here are some interesting tidbits about our Irish roots in Iceland.

It is believed that Irish Christian Monks and/or hermits came to Iceland in the 8thcentury. The Vikings started settling Iceland by the year 874 and the claim is that the heathen Vikings chased the Irish monks out of Iceland. The “Islendingabók” tells of the Celtic monks that left the island of their own free will because they did not want to mingle with the horrible heathen Norsemen.

Iceland has a town called Patreksfjörður and it is situated in a fjord with the same name. The fjord was named by the first settler to that area. His spiritual guide was St. Patrick. Interestingly, this fjord was where the first potatoes were grown in Iceland.

The site called Melkorkustaðir has an interesting Irish link. There is a great young adult novel based on the true story about an Irish slave girl, Melkorka. The novel, Hush: An Irish Princess Tale has 15-yr-old Princess Melkorka shopping in Dublin with her family. They have to escape their kingdom. Melkorka and her sister are kidnapped by slave traders. Meklorka refuses to speak and is thought of as a mute. She is sold as a concubine to a wealthy Icelandic man. Melkorka was the daughter of the Irish King Muircertach and she is my 27th Great Grandmother. Her son and my 26th Great Grandfather is Ólafur Höskuldsson. He was known as Olaf the Peacock because he had magnificent clothing and was one of the wealthiest landowners in Iceland. Ólafur is a major character in many of the Icelandic Sagas. This saga is so interesting and there is so much more to tell one day.

Another one of my ancestors and most likely yours, if you are Icelandic, is Auð the Deep-Minded. She was married to Ólaf the White – King of Dublin. She gave freedom to all her Irish slaves in Iceland including Vifil (my 25th Great Grandfather). A granddaughter of Vifil was Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir. I wrote about her here. But a better story about Guðríður is found in the book by Nancy Marie Brown, ‘’The Far Traveler.’’

The town of Akranes was first settled in 880 by Irish settlers. They created one of the first Christian settlements in Iceland. Each summer, Akranes has a week-long celebration called, Írskir Dagur (Irish Days).

The Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Islands) are named after Irish slaves that murdered Hjörleifur, the brother of Ingólfur Arnarson. Ingólfur is known as the first permanent settler in Iceland and is said to have founded Reykjavík. Ingólfur hunted the slaves down and killed all of them on Vestmannaeyjar.

Other Irish place names are the farm Írafell and the nearby mountain, Írafellsbunga (Mountain of the Irish) in northwest Iceland and Kjaransvík (Ciaran’s Bay) in the Westfjörðs among other Irish place-names.

An interesting saint of Ireland is St. Brendan the Navigator. He was born in 484 in County Kerry, Ireland. Some people say that he and his crew sailed to Iceland, Greenland, and even to America 400 years before Leifur Erikíksson. So, maybe the Irish discovered America! Literature attributed to his travels describes “pelting with flaming, foul-smelling rocks” such as watching a volcano and “towering crystals” such as what we now call icebergs. Here is a link to a longer story about St. Brendan.

Almost two years ago, we traveled to Ireland to attend the wedding of our son and daughter-in-law. It was a great adventure and a wonderful wedding. It is so interesting to learn about the Irish connections in our Icelandic roots and the routes where our history intertwines.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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