Updated: May 7
By Elin de Ruyter, IR Genealogist
María Rögnvaldsdóttir is my new hero. As a mother of four young children and proud aunty of three sets of twins in my own family, I was excited and astonished to discover the story of Maria Rögnvaldsdóttir, an Icelandic woman who over the span of sixteen years gave birth to fifteen children including six sets of twins from 1916 to 1932 in one of the most isolated places in Iceland; the Westfjörds, but it is not simply this that is remarkable. She birthed all of these sets of twins at home with only a midwife to assist her. She lost only one baby in infancy and raised fourteen children to adulthood.
As a new mother back in 2007, I found life with one child challenging enough and then as my own brood grew with the passing of years the juggle of life with four children, all two years apart; a newborn, a two year old, a four year old and six year old I struggled at times to find myself within the craziness of being a mother, a wife and still be my own person, but fifteen children! How could anyone cope with that many children and remain sane? As a mother in the 21st Century I had the luxurious options of disposable nappies, the doctor on call 24 hours a day, the blessed panadol for a cranky, teething baby, an endless supply of milk from both breast and grocery store. No effort went into the thought of my children‘s clothing apart from buying them and deciding what cute outfit they should wear each day, but best of all my husband came home to me every night and was able to help me with the children at the end of each day. I had the option of playgroups and eventually Kindergarten and school for the kids. If I wanted or needed to go to work, I could put them into daycare. What a different world María came from. What luxuries did a mother have in 1920s Iceland while she was birthing and raising her children? By the time María was my current age - I am now- 36 years old - she was mother to eleven children and pregnant with another set of twins. She didn't complete her family until the age of 41 years old.
María Rögnvaldsdóttir was born on the 13th of January 1891 at the farm of Svarfhóll in Súðavíkurhreppur, Norður Ísafjarðarsýsla. She was the eighth child of Rögnvaldur Guðmundsson and Kristín Guðmundsdóttir and one of twelve children. She had a happy childhood coming from a big musically talented family. Her five brothers all played the harmonika (aka accordian) and three of them played at the local dances which were often held in the lounge room of her family home.
At a young age she moved with her parents to the farm Uppsalir in Seyðisfjörður in the Westfjords where she lived until the age of 24 when she married Hálfdán Ólafur Hálfdánarson on the 23rd of June 1915. He went more commonly by the name Ólafur. María had met Ólafur while she was a fanggæsla (caretaker of the catch) of a small sea croft on Vigur, the second largest island in Ísafjarðardjúp. He was a fisherman in the same sea croft. After their marriage they moved into a bedroom at the farm Hestur in Súðavíkurhreppur with Ólafur´s parents. Ironically, María revealed in an interview conducted by the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið in 1981 by Elín Palmadóttir that it was never in her plans to have children.
While living at the farm Hestur, María and Ólafur had their first four children. Ósk was born in 1916, Guðrún in 1917 and their first set of twins Karítas and Einar were born there on the 26th of March 1919. Sadly Karítas died when she was about three months old. Rögnvaldur and Kristín were born in 1920, Fjóla and Lilja in 1922, Jónatan in 1925, Hálfdan and Helga in 1926, Halldóra and Haukur in 1928 and lastly María and Ólafur in 1932. María and Ólafur also raised a foster son, named Ármann Leifsson who María was asked to take on in infancy after the death of his grandmother who was his sole carer at the time.
Both the Morgunblaðið interview and various obituaries written by different members of María's family after her death, reveals a much loved and well respected woman who carried her hardships with dignity and without complaint. She was light-hearted and found pleasure in the small things including a love of birdlife and the Eider ducks around her home and was grateful for the blessings in her life. She lived by the notion that if she had her health then there was nothing to complain about. She believed she was a rich woman and measured this in the many good children she bore and stated in Icelandic that; betra er yndi en auður- happiness is better than money.
María came from an era where it was still normal to have between eight to ten children on average and it was her duty to raise them and to keep house. She was responsible for making not only food for her children and supplying their milk but she also had to prepare and spin the wool so it would be ready to be used for the sewing and knitting of all clothing for her children. María reveals that they made their children´s shoes out of sheepskin and grásleppuroð (Lumpsucker skin-a type of fish). Proper leather boots were expensive and they lived too far from the nearest merchant town so it was simply one of life's nuances – to have constant wet feet and shoes that lasted only a short while. But María said that her children grew well in spite of this and were healthy. They also ate the ‘old foods‘, which Maria said in her interview that people no longer did much of.
María came from a generation where nothing was wasted. She mentions that people would often question how she managed to keep her large brood fed and clothed when people today find it expensive to feed just a family of six like me, but she said that all food was used. People didn't live off meat like they do today. They lived mostly on fish and mjölmat (grain foods). They had a cow and they also had sheep and would milk them for their own supply of milk along with using the cream to make Skyr, a type of Icelandic yogurt and the mysa would be used in foods such as slátur which they ate often. María breastfed her babies, but not for very long. The longest breastfed was her eldest daughter Ósk who was breastfed for nine months. The babies were then bottle fed. She said they struggled with milk supply at times.
María and Ólafur had a long and loving marriage. They were married for 57 years. They filled their home wherever they were living at the time with warmth and it was recalled by family and Maria herself that they never argued. It wasn't in them to argue with anyone, she mentioned in the Morgunblað interview. Ólafur was a hard working man. He was the foreman on a rowing boat, working at sea and was often away for long periods of time. They lived at various places throughout their marriage in Suðavík and Ögurhreppur, lastly at Folafótur before settling in the town of Bólungarvik in 1932. Once they moved to Bolungarvík, Ólafur stopped going to sea and took on farm work and other jobs.
María spent most of her 20s and 30s with two babies on the breast while pregnant with another two. She tells a great many things about her life in the Morgunblaðið interview.
”No doctor came near me. There were no phones at home then. You had to have faith, to trust in God and and your own luck. A man from the next farm would be notified to collect the midwife. My deliveries were quite long so the midwife always made it in time.“
María said she always knew when she was carrying twins and she mentioned having given birth to all of her children at home with just a midwife. The midwife for Ögurþing during these years was Sigríður Gísladóttir IR # 310318. It was very likely that she delivered some of María's babies, though birth records do not state who the midwife was. María delivered good sized babies with her first set of twins weighing in at about 4 kg and 2.5 kg, the last three sets were all around 3.75 kg and 4 kg.
María and Ólafur pictured centre, sitting in the front row surrounded by their fourteen children. Standing from right are Ósk, Guðrún, the twins Kristín and Rögnvaldur, the twins Fjóla and Lilja, Jónatan and Einar whose twin Karítas died in infancy. Sitting in the front row centre are María and Ólafur and on either side of them the youngest set of twins María and Ólafur. Sitting from the far left are the twins Haukur and Halldóra and on the far right the twins Helga Svava and Hálfdán. Source: www.timarit.is (Morgunblaðið, 30 Aug 1981 by Elín Pálmadóttir pg. 17)
What a pleasure it has been to discover María‘s story. It truly was a different world back then, a different mindset. During the times we are currently experiencing with the Covid 19 pandemic, it is important to remember that this is not the first time the world has faced difficulties. It is important to remember our ancestors, to reflect on their stories and know that they faced difficult times and got through them. Their stories ground us and remind us to have courage, that we have resilience and that this too shall pass. At the end of the day what is important is our attitude and how we face the struggles that set upon us. María‘s story has reminded me deeply of this.
Ólafur died on the 26th of March 1973 at the age of 81 years old in Bolungarvík. María died on the 19th of October 1989 at the hospital in Ísafjörður at the age of 98 years old. Her descendants upon her death were said to be about two hundred. She carried great health all the way into her nineties, which her doctor credited to her attitude to life, for she certainly lived through her fair share of difficult times.
María Rögnvaldsdóttir is IR# 309608 in the Icelandic Roots Database. Her husband Ólafur is IR # 309616. Find out if you are related to her through our Relationship Calculator Feature. Do you have the twin gene in your family? How far back does it go? Let us know!
Newspaper Articles accessed at www.timarit.is
Elín Pálmadóttir, 1981, ‘Ég er víst sérkennileg skepna’, Morgunblaðið, 30 Aug, pg.16-17
1989, ‘Minning: María Rögnvaldsdóttir, Bolungarvík’, Morgunblaðið, 28 Oct, pg.13