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Con Houlihan: The land of ice has lost a lot of its fire

Some years ago the BBC put out a fascinating film about life in Norway in the ninth century. We saw a community of about 5,000 people preparing for a voyage from which they would not come back.

The men refurbished their boats and built new ones; the women prepared large quantities of salted meat and fish; the young men spent their time practising the martial arts with swords and spears and shields.

When the spring came, the good people of the community did not sow oats or barley or wheat, because they wouldn't be coming back. I thought they were setting out to the unknown western world, to the land that Christopher Columbus came upon several centuries later. That was wrong -- they were about to pay an unfriendly visit to Ireland.

About the same time another community also prepared for an expedition from which they wouldn't return. There was a difference: the young men did not practise the martial arts because the community was going to a land where there were no people and which no people wanted. It was a country not very far to the west and, from fishing expeditions, the Norse knew that it was almost uninhabitable.

Hunger

They took with them as many sheep as they could and some ponies. They hoped that they had sufficient food to keep them until they could permanently establish themselves. Their early years were almost unendurable. The sea was often too stormy for fishing and there were times when people died of malnutrition and hunger.

Iceland is a strange country. Most of it is barren, or appears to be. The glaciers moved from north-west to south-east and left hardly any soil behind them. Heather grew there, and moss. Somehow the sheep and the ponies found enough grass to survive. There were times when the fishing was good and enough food could be stored to last the people over the bad periods.

Little villages grew up along the coast. The vast interior was uninhabited except by the sheep and the ponies.

My first visit to Iceland was about 25 years ago. Certain aspects came as a pleasant surprise. You expected that the capital, Reykjavik, would be a grey town. It is a lovely little city made up mostly of small houses painted in 40 shades of green and 40 shades of any colour you could imagine. For some of our expedition there was a rather different shock.

There were no pubs in Reykjavik, or in any part of the country except the airport. On our first afternoon there some of our pilgrims, mostly the younger men, were lost souls. It was pathetic to see them wandering along the hillside outside the capital: they were like otters in a land where all the streams had gone dry. They missed their Guinness, not to mention the Murphy's and the Beamish. You could buy spirits in the hotels at exorbitant prices, but this wasn't part of our culture. It was thought that the absence of pubs was due to a kind of puritan outlook and that the Icelanders were utterly opposed to the idea of drink, but that wasn't the way: the trouble was that they had a drink problem.

Scandinavians can brew from boyhood and almost every family in Reykjavik has its own little private brewery, but that wasn't the real trouble. The trouble was the pulp left over after the brewing from which they distilled a wicked drink called Kevass. It was a drink that tended to make people crazy, or at least make them behave dangerously. The government had to do something, and about 20 years ago beer began to appear from licensed breweries. It is about the best beer in the world. It costs about twice the price of beer here in Ireland but a pint goes a long way in Iceland.

Believe it or not, these good, resourceful people export bananas: they are grown under glass or plastic or whatever in the south-east of the island where the glaciers left behind a deposit of rich earth.

Bananas

The economy of Iceland had always been simple and sound: they export fish and mutton and, of course, bananas, and once they had no national debt of any account.

Iceland was an independent country. There was no unemployment and indeed, at the height of the fish-curing season they have to depend on bringing in hundreds of women from Hull and Grimsby and other fishing towns in the north-east of England. Because life is quiet there and democracy is very much part of their philosophy, we heard little about them until two years ago.

Then something amazing happened: business corporations and local bodies invested in Iceland in a huge way. Some people may have thought that they were about to discover oil there or minerals. The reason was simple: Icelander Bank was offering interest well above the international average. The British and Dutch investments came to about d30bn. Something went hopelessly wrong. Seemingly that money was badly invested by the Icelander Bank and the country is now more than d30bn in debt. Will they pay it back? Can they pay it back? The question is going to a referendum. All the citizens may have to dig deep in their pockets. It is amazing that these good people are in such a quandary.

Is there a comparison with the Republic? Perhaps there is. If the Icelanders vote No against repaying the Dutch and the British, what will happen? That is the f30bn question.

Fogra: Warmest congratulations go to John O'Shea and GOAL and all the other Irish aid agencies for their response to the catastrophe in Port-au-Prince, Haiti


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