June 17th - Iceland´s National Day
This year is a solemn occasion for us for two reasons. We celebrate the centenary of Home Rule, the most important milestone in Iceland’s campaign for independence, and rejoice at the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Republic at Þingvellir on June 17, 1944.
Jón Sigurðsson* was a bold and forward-looking campaigner, yet even he neither foresaw nor insisted on achieving such a conclusion to the movement for independence. But we know his character well enough, even though it is shrouded in history, to feel certain that he would have been happiest and proudest of all at the outcome and the success that this nation has achieved.
History often gives the impression of being an elusive miscellany of events, peculiarly grouped together, but actually has more continuity than meets the eye. Only four weeks after the funeral of Jón Sigurðsson and [his wife] Ingibjörg was held in our Cathedral, in the presence of crowds who greatly mourned them, people gathered again – joyfully this time, to lay the cornerstone of Parliament House on the west side of the church. A silver plaque is embedded in the stone, with the inscription “The truth will set you free.” Many great and noble things can be said about Parliament House and what goes on behind its doors. But the truth is not necessarily better safeguarded on those premises than anywhere else in Iceland. It has been the first victim in many battles. However, this does not alter the fact that no single institution has more significance for the well-being and happiness of the Icelandic nation than parliament. Experience proves that when parliament succeeds best in its work, this country and its people benefit enormously and everyone’s path to a better is made easier. Nonetheless, respect for parliament has varied over the years and it is more common than might be expected for those who serve the nation there to be dealt harsh words. Parliament itself has even been come in for direct as well as indirect attacks, the fiercest of which was when the Republic was only a few years old. Yet there is no question that, deep down inside, people in Iceland are fond of their parliament and want it to enjoy honour and respect. I mentioned the cornerstone of Parliament House before – but parliament itself is the cornerstone of democracy and freedom in Iceland. And when we examine its performance after a hundred years of Home Rule, and judge it fairly, it scores good marks. After centuries of being one of the poorest countries in Europe, Iceland now ranks with the most prosperous societies in the world. This has been achieved in spite of the small population, which some people once thought would prevent Iceland from ever standing on its own two feet. And it has been achieved even though Iceland is by no means on the beaten track. In terms of results in specific areas, Iceland measures itself only against the best performers in each case. In fact the point has now been reached where most Icelanders take the success that has been achieved for granted, and even toy with idea that the nation does not need to make very much effort to maintain this position indefinitely. Certainly we have a good possibility of doing so over the coming years and decades. Numerous and widespread opportunities are at hand, but this does not mean that we can have everything for nothing. We will always need to exert ourselves in order to rank with the leaders in the community of nations
I mentioned earlier two events which, a hundred and twenty-five years ago, took place here within the space of a few days: the funeral of the pioneers [of independence] and the laying of the cornerstone of Parliament House. Although to the best of my knowledge there is no written documentation of the event, it is almost certain that a student, who was then in the top form of the Learned School and its head prefect, Hannes Hafstein, would have attended both events and, since students acted as pall-bearers, very probably carried the coffin of Jón Sigurðsson or his wife Ingibjörg part of the way. Hannes Hafstein would later become one of the most commanding presences in the building where the cornerstone had been laid. Yet it was by no means always plain sailing for him there, because when tempers flared he came under a barrage of attacks and even incredible insults. Although he disapproved of this, as is only human, he did not bear grudges towards individual members of parliament. Hannes Hafstein was renowned for his own politeness, although it was known that he was both passionate and temperamental, and therefore needed to keep firm control of himself. Sometimes certain passing issues give the impression that the whole of parliament is at loggerheads, when complaints and accusations are bandied about in the strongest possible language. But it should be remembered that this is the smallest part of parliamentary business and is even considered an essential feature of debating in the national assembly, although of course most members try to keep to the point. People in Iceland can rest assured that parliament is fully aware of the responsibility vested in it, for all the verbal cut and thrust in the debating chamber. Members of parliament have been granted the privilege of a mandate to serve their nation for a while at its most distinguished forum. Of course they are grateful for that opportunity. And Hannes Hafstein definitely was. He, on the other hand, encouraged his countrymen to show moderation when he said: “Cross out the big words, try to honour the small ones.” And he ended his poem as follows:
“Away with the empty words of dross,
the arching pride, the snarled retort.
Away with flattery, weak and base!
Find civilisation’s true import.”
Hannes Hafstein had, at the age of only 18, written his most heartfelt confession of love to Iceland:
“If I grow to manhood, and he grants it who
over all seasons and nations holds sway,
that I may do something in service of you
though there is but little that offer I may,
then I’ll give my life to your cause and your goal,
each poem, each blood-drop, my heart and my soul.”
[Poet] Tómas Guðmundsson wrote about this young man’s poem: “Seldom has such a noble and vigorous voice made itself heard at the beginning of a poetic career, and even more seldom has a young idealist sought to fulfil his youthful promise with such unqualified loyalty as Hannes Hafstein.”
I am in no doubt that the current members of parliament, whatever their political alignment, sincerely and wholeheartedly endorse the promise that Hannes Hafstein, our first Prime Minister, phrased so clearly, and adopt it as their own. If they do,
“Then the God who granted fame in days gone past
will raise our fosterland anew, reborn.
Due will be paid for the sorrow of all that’s lost,
ideals come true. Then day again will dawn.”
I wish my fellow countryman good luck in the future and thank you all for the patience and tolerance you have shown me, as I say for the fourteenth time from this place: “Happy National Day, fellow Icelanders.”
*1811-1879, leader of the 19th-century campaign for independence; the anniversary of his birth, June 17, is Iceland’s National Day.