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Edwina Guckian. Photograph by John Kelly

Rediscovering the magic of May

The ancient tradition of the May Tree Dance will be celebrated afresh in Carron next month, with members of the public invited to join Edwina Guckian for a one-off event in the Burren.
The Clare dancer has discovered ancient descriptions of the dance, which dates back thousands of years, and is using these description to develop of modern approximation of how our ancestors might have danced.
The event, which is being organised by the BurrenBeo Trust, will take place in Carron on May 6, but there will be two free workshops this weekend for anyone who wants to learn more about the dance and the ancient pagan May traditions in Clare.
“In ancient times people would decorate their May tree, which is usually a hawthorn tree, the tree of the fairies. Bealtaine is a really busy time for the fairies and the devilment that they get up to, or so our ancestors would have believed,” said Edwina.
“The idea of decorating the May tree or the May bush is to decorate the tree with things that they might have had left over from Easter, such as painted eggs, and that would offer protection from the fairies.
“They would sing and dance around the tree, they might light a fire and sometimes make a May bábóg, which is a straw doll, and hang that in the tree.
“There would also be a May Queen, where one of the local girls would dress as the May Queen.
“This is a great way for us to reconnect with the hawthorn tree, which is undergoing its own challenges at the moment with the different diseases which are travelling through our hedgerows.
“It is a way of celebrating our hawthorn tree and all of its folklore and stories.”
Edwina has created a new May Tree Dance which she will premiere at the event in Carron. The dance is based on brief historical descriptions of the dances that ancient people in Ireland would have done on May Day.
“There is no specific dance that we know of for the May tree, but I have choreographed a new dance for this event,” said Edwina.
“There would probably have been a specific dance in ancient times and I have found some brief documentation where English academics came here to study the behaviour and folklore of Irish peasants, as they would have called them.
“They speak about this snake like movement by the dancers around the tree. So I have taken these tiny little descriptions and choreographed them in my own way for this event.”
In preparation for this event, Edwina will host two free workshops this weekend in the Burren where some of the May traditions will be explored.
The workshops, which are open to everyone and suitable for children, will take place between 2pm and 4pm this Saturday, April 13, at Vaughan’s Barn in Kilfenora and from 2pm to 4pm in Tubber Hall on Sunday, April 14,
“The workshops are about bringing the community together. That is what a lot of my work revolves around, looking at different ways of bringing people together to celebrate,” said Edwina.
“We will have music, some great local musicians are coming to play there, there will be tea and chats. After that I will be sharing traditions about May Day and May Eve with people, such as putting May flowers out on your doorstep on the last day of April to protect your house and farm from the fairies.
“Then we will be speaking about the May Day traditions, such as washing your face in the May morning dew before the sun shines on it. If you rub the May morning dew on your eyes it is supposed to give you eternal youth. I always tell the kids that I have done it every year since I was a child, and I am 75 years old now.
“We will also talk about the story of the hare, who was a changeling.
“The story goes that the hare was trying to steal the milk from the cows on a May morning and the farmer shot at her. When they followed the hare back into the house they found a woman with an injured leg.
“So I will be sharing those stories with people and also teaching them the dance and a few other little dances that people can do themselves.
“The hope is that the people who attend the workshops will bring these skills home with them and use them themselves at the beginning of May.
“But it would also be great if some of the people who attend the workshops come to the event in Carron on May 6.”
Edwina Guckian is an award-winning dancer who has taught her steps and shared the stage with some of Ireland’s most influential acts. In April 2022, Edwina was awarded the Gradam Comaoine TG4 for her outstanding contribution to culture.
In 2023 she was selected for the Markievicz Award by the Arts Council and Department of An Taoiseach and in February 2024 Edwina launch her first book for children called ‘Sparks from the Flagstones’ – a treasury of Irish Folk Traditions and Calendar Customs.
The workshops are part of TURAS, is a year-long Creative Climate Action project led by Burrenbeo Trust and supported by Creative Ireland. The project is in collaboration with artists such as Anja Murray, Jane Clarke, Jack Talty, Max Jones and Edwina.
The workshops are in preparation for the May Tree Dance which will take place in Carron on May 6.

About Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is a journalist, writer and podcaster based in the west of Ireland.

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