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Why Icelandic Roots Went To Iceland

By Rob Olason

The morning of September 1, 2023, was much like any other September morning in Iceland.

People woke up and prepared to go to work, children got ready for school. Shops opened, kaffí was made, bread toasted, skyr was ladled over dry cereal or tossed with fresh fruit, newspapers were read (or apps browsed on phones and tablets), and anyone looking out their window in Reykjavík saw the promise of a fairly nice day awaited.

Looking out that same window, they might also notice twenty-five people dragging their suitcases along the cobbled sidewalks of Reykjavík, making their way to the iconic Hallgrímskirkja.

There these recent arrivals would board an awaiting bus, eager to begin an adventure that would take them on a Ring Road journey around the country, through an ever-changing landscape, simultaneously travel through Iceland's history, and in the process make a little history of their own as they laid down a calling card in four historic locations.

The bus now loaded with passengers, would begin to amble away from Hallgrímskirkja, making its way to Route 1-the Ring Road-and toward the first stop on the journey: a visit with the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, at Bessastaðir, the official residence of Iceland’s president. There the group was warmly welcomed and had a wonderful chat with Frú Eliza Reid about the purpose of this journey, to celebrate and honor the Western Icelanders who left for North America, and also honor the families and communities they left behind. The conversation was lively, fueled by freshly made kaffí, pönnukökur, and kleinur, a trio of delights that would frequently punctuate the gatherings at the emigration port monument dedications.

L-R: First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, Beth Finnson, Jody Arman-Jones, Susan Huff
L-R: First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, Beth Finnson, Jody Arman-Jones, Susan Huff

The genesis of this Icelandic Roots journey around Iceland occurred two years previously during conversations about what would be an appropriate event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Icelandic Roots. Sunna Furstenau huddled with the leadership team, and they discussed many options before settling on the idea of returning to Iceland to honor the ancestors who emigrated to North America.

As the discussion evolved over the months, the question of how to honor the emigrating ancestors grew to encompass the other components of their story: the people and lands they left behind. From this initial idea, a myriad of details needed to be identified: what would a monument honoring this historic moment and its people look like? Where would the monuments be placed? Other practical concerns surfaced. How many people could participate in the journey? Accommodations and meals for a large group would require some creative planning, especially in some of the more remote locations in the east and north as the tourist season was winding down, and options were shrinking.

A team approach began finding answers to the details. Doug Hanson and his team worked diligently to figure out the logistics of moving, housing, and feeding around twenty-five people for ten days in multiple locations.

One of the fifty plus stops on the journey: Seljalandsfoss
One of the fifty plus stops on the journey: Seljalandsfoss

They also developed an itinerary that would place the group in the port cities on the right day at the right time while also taking in as many historic and natural features of Iceland as possible. This resulted in a mix of over fifty sites the group would visit—in ten days. In eastern Iceland, resident and IR volunteer, Hjördís Hilmarsdóttir, identified several local sites and ably led the group as the local guide.

The yet-to-be-revealed monument at  Borðeyri
The yet-to-be-revealed monument at Borðeyri

A very important aspect of Icelandic Roots port ceremonies was the development of the actual monuments as well as identifying ports that would welcome such monuments and had the physical locations to install them.

Cathy Josephson spent six months researching several emigration ports to identify the best locations and then worked with the local authorities to determine where to place the monuments.

Cathy developed the wording for each port monument, finding local poetry from the period that described the feelings of leaving one’s home, and included the information in English and Icelandic.

Port ceremonies brought people living far apart together.

A group picture in front of the monument in Seyðisfjörður
A group picture in front of the monument in Seyðisfjörður

On September 3, 2023, the Icelandic Roots volunteers were in Seyðisfjörður, in eastern Iceland, to join with local citizens in dedicating the first of four monuments. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. The mayor, Björn Ingimarsson, accepted the monument on behalf of the community. The event included the singing of Icelandic songs, much laughter, a few tears, and a lot of joy.

Björn has planted over 100,000 trees on his farm. He demonstrates how to plant.
Björn has planted over 100,000 trees on his farm. He demonstrates how to plant.

September 5, 2023, the IR volunteers gathered at Hofkirkja just outside Vopnafjörður, with several local cousins to dedicate the monument for this port. In addition to speeches by Cathy Josephson and Sunna Furstenau and local officials, the group planted several trees around the site where the monument will be permanently installed.

Here the group met Björn Halldórsson, an area farmer and passionate tree planter. In 2022, he promised to donate trees for the Icelandic Roots' 10-year celebration, through his association with the Six Rivers Foundation. This summer about 80,000 trees were planted locally and in nearby areas by the foundation.

Icelandic songs shared at the  Sauðárkrókur ceremony.
Icelandic songs shared at the Sauðárkrókur ceremony.

September 8, 2023, the dedication ceremony took place on a hill overlooking Sauðárkrókur. Amidst strong winds, the audience was treated to excellent Icelandic singing and the unveiling of the monument that will overlook the city, giving all who read the words of the monument, a dramatic backdrop to an important time in every Western Icelander’s family past. Afterward, everyone regrouped in the social hall for a warming cup and a wide assortment of kleinur, pönnukökur, and other homemade delicacies.

Doreen leads singing at the Borðeyri ceremony.
Doreen leads singing at the Borðeyri ceremony.

September 9, 2023, saw the final port ceremony in Borðeyri which was the most intimate setting of all the ceremonies. Strong winds raked the shore, so the tour bus driver, Gunnar Gunnarsson, parked the bus near the dedication site to act as a much-needed windbreak. Currently, Borðeyri has only ten year-round residents and the IR volunteers significantly out-numbered those few residents. However, they showed great spirit and friendly hospitality in welcoming the group to their village.

Participants at the Borðeyri ceremony standing in front of  Riishús.
Participants at the Borðeyri ceremony standing in front of Riishús.

After the dedication ceremony, everyone regrouped in the nearby Riishús, recently restored and one of the oldest structures in Borðeyri. Originally the Danish merchant’s home and place of business, this was the building where area Icelanders came to register their intent to emigrate. The building holds a special place in Icelandic Roots' own history because the organization donated to help with the restoration.

The ten-day journey the Icelandic Roots volunteers took was a sweeping survey of an entire land, its history, and always framed within the land's unique, rugged beauty.

This ten-day sojourn was also an inward journey, where the participants discovered the points where their family story was joined with the bigger story of this small island nation in the North Atlantic. That personal journey continues even after the voyagers have returned home.

The monument installed at Borðeyri
The monument installed at Borðeyri

Next time: A look into the future of Icelandic Roots…

Previous articles in this series:

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