Iceland ProCruises: Visiting birthplace of Iceland’s independence hero

A small wooden church is open for visitors at the Jón Sigurðsson birthplace.
A small wooden church is open for visitors at the Jón Sigurðsson birthplace.

ABOARD THE OCEAN DIAMOND – Iceland gained its independence from Danish rule on June 17, 1944. No shots were fired. No one was killed.

Who was the man Icelanders say was mainly responsible for this bloodless revolution? Iceland’s independence was obtained by the hard work of many but it is attributed mostly to the tireless efforts of a man named Jón Sigurðsson.

Born June 17, 1811, Jón is credited with stirring a great national awakening in Iceland. He became a national hero for fighting for Icelandic independence.

For our shore excursion from the Ocean Diamond today, we headed to Hrafnseyri in the Westfjords to visit the birthplace of Jón Sigurðsson. It seemed as though we were heading to the ends of the earth on our six-hour excursion. Then the beautiful scene appeared before us. It looked like a painting.

Turf houses are replicates of the home where Jón Sigurðsson was born.
Turf houses are replicates of the home where Jón Sigurðsson was born.

I’m told this can be a very isolated place in the winter when roadways are blocked with snow. But during the brief summer months when the site is open, the views are glorious. A wonderful museum was opened here on June 17, 2011, to celebrate the 200th birthday of the man often called Iceland’s “president.”

“The June 17th birthday of Jón Sigurðsson is celebrated in Iceland as our Independence Day,” said museum guide Valdimar Halldórsson, adding that Jón’s image is on the 500-krone paper bill.

                                             Gaining independence

By 1874, Iceland had been under harsh Danish rule for hundreds of years and was almost bankrupt during the time of the Trade Monopoly. The Icelandic people wanted their freedom. Through his diplomatic skills and his belief that the pen is mightier than the sword,  Jón helped achieve it for them.

By the way, I am told in Iceland it is proper to refer to a person by the given name in writing– Jón. The last name is patronymic, not a family name. It reflects the father or mother of the child and not the historic family lineage.

For example, if Jón Einarsson has a son named Tom, the boy’s last name will be not Einarsson like his father’s. Instead, it will be Jónsson, meaning he is the son of Jón. If Jón Einarsson has a daughter and names her Jane, her last name would not be Einarsson but Jónsdóttir – the daughter of Jón.

A new museum was dedicated on the 200th birthday of Jón Sigurðsson.
A new museum was dedicated on the 200th birthday of Jón Sigurðsson.

A prolific writer about Icelandic history, politics and economics, Jón published a magazine declaring arguments for Iceland’s right to independence and hammered away at Danish leaders. His motto was “Aldrei ad vikja” (Never let down). It worked. The right to free trade was established in 1854 and 20 years later, a constitution was drawn up making Iceland self governing in home affairs.

Sadly, Jón  didn’t live to see Iceland become a sovereign state under the Danish crown on December 1, 1918, nor to see Iceland gain full independence from Denmark and declare itself a republic on June 17, 1944. But he had laid the important framework for this to happen and Icelanders have never forgotten.

“He is our hero,” Valdimar said. “He is Iceland’s pride, sword and shield.”

Much to see at new museum site

The modern museum has an interesting exhibit on Jón’s life, Iceland’s history and other fascinating Icelanders, including Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson for whom the farm was named. An influential man in the 12th–13th century, he lived here and was  probably the first trained doctor in Iceland.

“He operated to take a diseased kidney out of a man,” Valdimar said. “That was a new way of thinking, to go inside a human body for treatment.”

Records are sparse about the good doctor, Valdimar added, “but we believe he learned that at medical school in Salermo, Italy.”

The small church is a popular spot for weddings.
The small church is a popular spot for weddings.

Although Hrafn was a hospitable and generous man who never refused anyone a medical service at no charge, the good doctor met a tragic end. He was beheaded by a warring chieftain on March 4, 1213.

“The doctor is probably buried in that graveyard,” Valdimar said, gesturing to a lovely wooden chapel surrounded by an ancient cemetery. “The graveyard here is from the beginning of Christianity.”

Jón is not buried in the cemetery.  After his death on Dec. 7, 1879, he was given a state funeral in Reykjavík.

The museum site also has a gable-roofed turf house, similar to the one where Jón was born. Refreshments can be bought in the house and visitors can wander through the various rooms to see what life was like in Jón’s times. A woman was serving coffee and making waffles while we were there. I didn’t buy any because I knew I had that huge lunch bag waiting in the bus, plus the evening’s meal would be the captain’s dinner.

One nice thing I have noticed on the Ocean Diamond is that several of the evening’s menu offerings will be placed on the decorative front table as we enter the ship’s dining room. This is a great way to help diners choose what they would like to eat.

Often in a restaurant, I have gotten one look at a companions’ dinner and thought it looked better than mine. This way, diners can get a glimpse of some of the specialties on the night’s menu. It’s really quite helpful and makes choices somewhat easier.

I’ve taken a video of the ship dining room and the entry table with some dishes on it to help explain what I mean. Even though I wasn’t really hungry when I clicked on the video to be sure it was ready to go, just seeing that delicious food made me think I might be visiting the ship’s late night snack tonight.


Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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