In the early 16th century, the French started fishing cod in the rich Icelandic waters. They began modestly and each year over the following centuries, they set sail to Iceland from their coastal villages. Cod fishing became an important part of the economies in Dunkirk, where it started, and later Paimpol and Gravelines. From the mid-19th century, the French maintained a station in East Iceland in the tiny village of Fáskrúðsfjörður. By that time some 200-300 vessels had set sail to the Arctic North and many never made it back.
It is estimated that up to 400 ships were lost along with up to 5,000 seamen. It’s a story of bravery and tragedy. The French state built a hospital at Fáskrúðsfjörður in 1903 which, at that time, was the biggest and the most modern hospital in Iceland. They also built a chapel and a graveyard. So many fishermen paid the ultimate price that their plight touched the French nation. The First World War brought a rather abrupt end to the French sailings to Icelandic waters and by The Great Depression in 1930 they had totally ceased.
The Shelter – l’Abri – of modern times
The story lives on in both countries. At Fáskrúðsfjörður, tribute is paid to the French heroes who gave their lives in the frigid Icelandic waters to bring cod back to France. The French hospital has been rebuilt and down by the French graveyard, a monument has been erected in honor of the heroes of the sea who were subjected to hard work, wet and cold, not to mention the endless disasters as sailing ships sank and their seamen drowned in the treacherous Atlantic seas.
The thriving municipality of Fjarðabyggð
Fáskrúðsfjörður inhabitants now number 750 and the village is a part of Fjarðabyggð, a thriving area located in eastern Iceland that was established in 1998 with the successful merger of the former East Fjords districts. The towns of Fjarðabyggð are Eskifjörður, Neskaupsstaður, Reyðarfjörður, Stöðvarfjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, and Mjóifjörður, totally some 5.000 inhabitants.
The towns of the East were united to bring Alcoa’s aluminum smelter to Iceland. It is certainly one the most modern and technically-advanced smelters in the world, its exports contributing to some 10% of Iceland’s total GDP. As a result, the Eastern towns have experienced strong growth after decades of decline, with the traditional fishing industry being as strong as ever and of great importance to the Icelandic economy as well as, in recent years, a thriving tourism industry.
The Celts and African Pirates
Fáskrúðsfjörður is a small fjord south of Iceland’s biggest bay, the huge Reyðarfjörður Bay, where the three traditionally ‘big’ towns of Eskifjörður, Neskaupstaður and Reyðarfjörður are located. The renovation of the French heritage buildings, one of the largest historical restoration works outside the Reykjavík area, was finished in the summer of 2014. The five French buildings play a substantial role in local culture and society at Fáskrúðsfjörður.
The French Hospital, for example, now serves as a hotel with the l’Abri restaurant – The Shelter – on the ground floor. The old hospital serves as a truly beautiful hotel and a museum dedicated to the rich French heritage. The Chapel is the only building that still retains its original role and is open for guests of the museum.
There are also tales of attacks by North African pirates back in 1627 at Fáskrúðsfjörður and also nearby Stöðvarfjörður. Fáskrúðsfjörður gets its name from a magnificent island, Skrúður, from another millennium before the Norse settlements in the 8th Century, when the Celts were prominent in Iceland. Some theorize that the Gaelic name of the Island was Fasruth, the sea-current island, which would fit with the hazardous waters nearby.