The First May 1st in Iceland (1923)

Following the Haymarket Affair events in 1886 (see today’s post about it for more information), May 1 was made the International Labor Day in Paris in 1889 (on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution). In the following years, more and more countries adopted May 1 as their Labour Day, including Iceland.

The very first May Day parade in Iceland was held in 1923. Its demands were nowhere near radical, however, but the parade was still widely criticized in conservative papers. The parade went through downtown Reykjavík and was led by the Reykjavík marching band (Lúðrasveit Reykjavíkur).

The workers demanded, for example, an eight-hour workday, retirement insurance for all, that minimum wage (“þurftarlaun”) should not be taxed, etc. but also for total prohibition (as Spanish wine could be sold even under prohibition laws) and that production and manufacturing should be public property (see the picture for the complete list of demands in Icelandic).

May 1 was not a public holiday in Iceland until 1972 and so workers had take time off to attend the march, “except for a few Danish and Swedish mechanics who worked in the machine workshop Hamar and who categorically refused to work on May 1, saying that it was not customary in their countries,” as one of the organizers of the first May 1 parade, Henrik Óttosson, wrote in Alþýðublaðið [Nokkrir danskir og sænskir smiðir, sem unnu í Hamri neituðu afdráttarlaust að vinna 1. maí. Það væri ekki siður í löndum þeirra].

The most commonly-sung May 1 anthem, The Internationale—originally written in French by Eugène Pottier in 1871—was translated into Icelandic by Sveinbjörn Sigurjónsson under the name Internationalinn or simple Nalinn and published already in February 1922 and so was likely sung by many at the march.

It starts like this:
Fram þjáðir menn í þúsund löndum,
Sem þekkið skortsins glímutök.

Nú bárur frelsis brotna á ströndum,
Boða kúgun ragnarök.

Fúnar stoðir burtu vér brjótum.

Bræður fylkjum liði í dag.

Vér bárum fjötra en brátt nú hljótum
að byggja réttlátt þjóðfélag. …

– One of the first May 1 parades in Iceland, 1924 or 1925. Here the parade-goers march on Grettisgata. Photo taken by Karl Christian Nielsen, owned by the Reykjavik Museum of Photography (Ljósmyndasafn Reykjavíkur)

– The front page of Alþýðublaðið (“The People’s Paper”) on May 1, 1923.

– The front page of Alþýðublaðið from May 2, 1923, describing the parade: the route, slogans, attendance, etc.

– May 1 parade in 1923, on Laugavegur. Photo taken by Gísli Ólafsson, owned by Pétur Pétursson.

– The list of workers’s demands from 1923. Printed in the paper Vikublaðið on April 30, 1993, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the first parade.

– A short article about the two Icelandic translations of The Internationale, published in Morgunblaðið on May 1, 1982