Until recent times Iceland was an island nation slumbering in the northern latitudes of the Atlantic to which we in these parts were only vaguely aware. But we have had a couple of rude awakenings as to its presence, discovering it was rumbling rather than slumbering. First it was the Cash and then the Ash that aroused international attention with a bang- Ire and Fire you could say! So this week let’s check out what we thought were our very distant cousins. Iceland in its official announcements sees itself a modern European economy with strong economic foundations in fisheries, natural renewable energy sources and human capital that will allow Iceland to overcome the economic difficulties it is going through, like so many other countries around the world- echoes of words closer to home!

The Land of Ice and Fire

Iceland’s population is around 313.000 of which the vast majority or around 2/3 lives in the capital, Reykjavik, and surrounding areas. It is a large country (103,000 km², about the same surface area as Ireland, but it is sparsely populated, with only 3 persons per km² living mostly along the coast. The interior of the country contains stunning contrasts. It is largely an arctic desert, punctuated with mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls. Most of the vegetation and agricultural areas are in the lowlands close to the coastline. The core of the settlers were Nordic people, coming mostly from Norway and Nordic settlements in the British Isles. The Scandinavians from the British Isles brought with them people of Celtic origin, so there are traces of Celtic influence in, for example, some of the Eddaic poems and in a few personal and place names. This blending of people and cultures, in which influences from all over Scandinavia and other regions where Scandinavians had settled, may explain in part why the Icelanders, alone of all the Nordic peoples, produced great literature in the Middle Ages. Since the settlement of Iceland was mostly complete by the middle of tenth century, immigration of foreign elements has been minimal until the past few decades.

Around the year 1100, the population, then entirely rural, is estimated to have been about 70 – 80,000. Three times in the 18th century it sank below 40,000 but by the year 1900 it had reached 78,000. It had passed the 100,000 mark in 1925; in 1967 it reached 200,000 and in 1999 the population was 279,000. The population of the capital area in 2003 was 181,917. The average life expectancy for men is 78.7 years and for women 82.5 years – one of the world’s highest averages.

In 1880 there were only three towns in Iceland, where 5% of the population lived. By 1984 there were 23 towns and 42 villages where 89.2% of the population lived, while only 10.8% lived in rural districts and 1998 there were 30 towns and 94 other municipalities in Iceland.

Government and politics

Iceland is a republic, has a written constitution and a parliamentary form of government. The president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of four years, with no term limit. Most executive power rests with the Government, which is elected separately from the presidential elections every four years.

Althingi is a legislative body of 63 members elected for a term of four years by popular vote. Anyone who is eligible to vote, with the exception of the President and the judges of the Supreme Court, can stand for parliament. After every election, the President gives one of the parliamentary leaders of the political parties the authority to form a cabinet, usually beginning with the leader of the largest party. If he is not successful, the President will ask another political party leader to form a government- sound familiar? Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is the current Prime Minister and Steingrímur J. Sigfússon is the present Finance Minister.

Iceland achieved an impressive economic record the last decade, with one of the highest consistent growth rates in the world and low inflation and unemployment. At the end of 2008, however, Iceland was in the headlines of the international press for unenviable reasons. In the wake of the global financial crisis, Iceland’s three largest private banks experienced major liquidity problems and were, within the space of a few days, taken into government administration. The collapse of the banking sector, which was very large relative to Iceland’s economy, together with rapid depreciation of the Icelandic krona, brought about an unprecedented economic and financial crisis. However, its government claims that the foundations of the Icelandic economy remain strong and Iceland and that it is moving towards economic recovery with multilateral assistance from the International Monetary Fund playing a key role. Let’s hope so, like ourselves.

History and Culture

Iceland was the last European country to be settled, mostly by Norsemen in the 9th and 10th centuries. They came mainly from Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia, and from the Norse settlements in the British Isles, from where a Celtic element was also introduced. The language and culture of Iceland were predominantly Scandinavian from the outset, but there are traces of Celtic influence in some of the ancient poetry, in some personal names and in the appearance of present-day Icelanders. Magnus Magnusson, famously associated with the BBC’s Mastermind – long running quiz show was probably the most familiar Icelandic personality in this part of the world. Incidentally he wrote an excellent book on Irish history. We are doing our little bit today to learn something of his country.

All branches of the arts flourish in Iceland, especially painting, which started in earnest at the turn of the century. Literature has always been the mainstay of Icelandic culture; other aspects of the national heritage that used to be important in past centuries include manuscript illumination, woodcarving and folk music. There are many theatre companies in Iceland, including a National Theatre. In Reykjavík there is a symphony orchestra, an opera house and ballet company.

Religion in Iceland

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Iceland by the Constitution. There is a State church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to which about 83% of the population belongs. The conversion of Iceland to Christianity was a unique event. A whole society abandoned its ancient heathen belief and peacefully adopted the Christian faith. This happened at the opening session of Althing, the parliament, at Thingvellir in the year 1000, when the nation faced bitter divisions. The Speaker, Thorgeir of Ljósavatn, himself a heathen, addressed Althingi and spoke the classic words: “If the law torn asunder, so will the peace”. He declared that all Icelanders should be baptized into Christianity. This decision is considered to be the most important ever taken at Althingi since its establishment in 930 AD. So what about the C/ASH then?

Farðu heill, slan