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An Island Called Home

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An Island Called Home

The Eldfell volcanic eruption lasted from January 23 to July 3, 1973, leaving thousands of people homeless. That same year, residents of Heimaey in Vestmannaeyjar returned to rebuild their community. This summer, they celebrate the 40th anniversary of that feat.

Published in the 2013 August-September issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.13. By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos by Páll Stefánsson.

island_called_home_psSvavar Steingrímsson and his son Óskar Svavarsson, who were among the first to declare the eruption to be over on July 3, 1973, lead walkers to the crater of Eldfell with Svavar recounting the course of events he witnessed while being stationed on Heimaey as part of bunuliðið (‘the hose crew’).

The ferry is packed. Tourists are easily distinguished by their backpacks, waterproof jackets and hiking boots. The others are coming home. Heimaey (‘Home Island’) is the largest and only inhabited of the 15-island Vestmannaeyjar (‘Westman Islands’) archipelago, 8 km (5 miles) off Iceland’s southern coast. The local community thrives on fishing with Heimaey having the second-largest fishing harbor in the country. Natives flock to the island the first weekend of July every year to celebrate the end of the unexpected volcanic eruption that devastated the community in 1973. This year, 40 years have passed since the volcano, Eldfell, went dead.

Common Roots

In spite of its name, Goslokahátíð (‘End of Eruption Festival’) has surprisingly little to do with the eruption. On the program are concerts, readings, sports, theater performances, art exhibitions and other cultural events, few of which have direct links with the catastrophe. “You reconnect with people you know, with whom you have common roots. This year I’m expecting to meet an old friend who moved to Canada and I haven’t seen since we were kids,” explains psychologist Einar Gylfi Jónsson, a Heimaey native who didn’t move back to the island after the eruption but, like most others who were born there, has remained a Vestmannaeyingur at heart. “Vestmannaeyjar natives are scattered all over the country and it usually doesn’t take a long time until they’ve pointed out where they’re from.” Last year, Einar and some of his friends organized a special reunion for residents of Urðarvegur and two other streets in the neighborhood where they grew up, now covered by lava. A major hit, the storytelling event is back on this year’s program. “There’s a strong storytelling tradition in Vestmannaeyjar. We know a lot of stories about one another and we know how to tell a good story.”

When the Eldfell eruption started on January 23, 2013, Einar was 22 and studying in Reykjavík. His family, who had moved from Urðarvegur and to the western part of town—a neighborhood spared by the volcano—was evacuated along with most other Heimaey residents that fateful night. “My sister Helga had just started dating her husband Arnór. He was allowed to visit her in her room in the loft but had to leave at midnight. The night of the eruption he was still there, reading Brekkukotsannáll [The Fish Can Sing (1957) by Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Halldór Laxness], that I had recommended, to impress me and my father. When my family woke up to the eruption at 1:30 am Arnór came sheepishly down the stairs because he should have left the house already. An awkward silence followed. But the only thing my father said was: ‘Is no one going to invite him to a cup of coffee?’.”

You can read the remainder of this article and view the accompanying photographs in the August-September issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.13. Five times a year the print edition of Iceland Review & Atlantica brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson’s latest images of the country’s majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe.