Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) is a town and archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The largest island, Heimaey, has a population of 4,135. The other islands are uninhabited, though six have single hunting cabins. Vestmannaeyjar came to international attention in 1973 with the eruption of Eldfell volcano, which destroyed many buildings, and forced a months-long evacuation of the entire population to mainland Iceland.
The islands are named after the Irish who were captured into slavery by the Norse Gaels. The Old Norse word Vestmenn, literally "Westmen", was applied to the Irish, and retained in Icelandic even though Ireland is more easterly than Iceland. Not long after Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Iceland, his blood brother Hjörleifur was murdered by the slaves he had brought with him. Ingolfur tracked them down to Vestmannaeyjar and killed them all in retribution.
On July 16, 1627, in an event known as the Turkish abductions, the islands were captured by a fleet of 3 ships of Barbary Pirates from Algiers, who stayed there until July 19. They had earlier raided in Austfirðir and another raid under the command of Murat Reis from Salé in Morocco had taken place in Grindavík in June of that year. The pirates enslaved 234 people from the islands and took them to Algiers (after a voyage which lasted 27 days) where most of them spent the rest of their lives in bondage. One of the captives, Lutheran minister Ólafur Egilsson, managed to return back in 1628 and wrote a book about his experience. In 1636, ransom was paid for 34 of the captives and most of them returned to Iceland.
The area is very volcanically active, like the rest of Iceland. There were two major eruptions in the 20th century: the eruption in 1963 that created the new island of Surtsey, and the Eldfell eruption of January 1973, which created a 200-meter-high mountain where a meadow had been, and caused the island's 5000 inhabitants to be temporarily evacuated to the mainland.
From 1998 to 2003 the island of Heimaey was home to Keiko the killer whale, star of Free Willy.
The islands are famed in Iceland for their major annual festival, Þjóðhátíð (National Festival), which attracts thousand of people. The festival was originally held in 1874, concurrent with Iceland's celebration commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the inhabitation of Iceland. Vestmannaeyjar residents had been prevented by weather from sailing to the mainland for the festivities and thus celebrated locally.
Information based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westman_Islands