Edwina Guckian might have danced in palaces and for Presidents. But, if she’s being honest, they are not her most memorable performances.
“It’s the moment of dancing on the bar in Ballinaglera with meat hooks hanging off the ceiling and my hair hooked in it as I’m dancing,” she smiles. “Or dancing at the crossroads with the most amazing sunsets and Michael O’Brien from Killargue playing the box for you, like those special characters.
“It’s those moments I remember.”
For Irish Country Living’s photoshoot, however, the sean-nós dancer- dressed in a denim jumpsuit and rainbow-coloured skater shoes- is hot footing it on top of an upturned barrel in a wildflower meadow, close to the family farm just outside Drumsna, Co Leitrim.
Watching her shuffle, batter- and leap- is hypnotic. Her dance style is traditional and yet still seems totally of today; which is why you’re just as likely to come across her at the Willie Clancy Summer School as the Body and Soul festival.
Indeed, Edwina explains that sean-nós is really an Irish version of jazz dancing.
“It’s so informal and it’s all about your own way and your own style and being spontaneous. Nobody should be dancing the same and really the secret to this style of dance is not having a clue about what you’re about to do and when you’re finished, not having a clue what you just did,” says Edwina. “All you have to do is keep in time.”
Teaching to trad
But if Edwina makes it sound easy, maybe it’s because she was dancing as soon as she could walk. Raised on a beef cattle farm run by her parents, William and Eileen Guckian, traditional music and dancing were part of their daily rhythm.
“It was just you learned to walk and talk; and you learned to dance and play music as well,” she says.
Pursuing her passion as her career was never the plan, however.
“It wasn’t an option. It was just a hobby,” says Edwina, who instead studied primary teaching at St Pat’s and went on to teach in Strokestown.
All along, however, she was frequently asked to dance with Irish trad royalty like Altan, De Danann, Dervish and Kíla, as well as tour overseas. Struggling to balance both, she decided to take a year out of teaching.
“And then I never went back,” she smiles.
What did people say?
“The pension! The pension!” she laughs, but adds that while her parents were “super-supportive”, it was still a big decision.
“The uncertainty of whether you can make money and survive,” she continues. “But I had no responsibilities. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have children, so I thought, ‘It’s a good time, I’m not holding any one up.’ And I went for it; and work started piling in.”
And that work- like her feet- can bring her anywhere. For instance, on 11 September, she will perform at the National Concert Hall as part of the “Drawing from the well” project, for which artists were encouraged to “draw” from the Irish Traditional Music Archives to create new pieces.
“I focused on a dancer from Naas from the 1700s called Jack Lattin who danced for a bet; and danced himself to death,” says Edwina, who has also made a short film where she traced the ill-fated eight-mile route using Taylor and Skinner’s road map of Ireland from 1777.
Not wanting to meet a similar end to 21-year-old Lattin, however, she walked the route, and danced at different locations of significance to the story.
As well as performing, Edwina also teaches sean-nós to children. With support from her local enterprise office, she was able to develop her Airc Damhsa Culture Club, which now has members in nine counties across Ireland; and even one club in New York.
“Imagine a big bucket of music, song, dance, folklore, customs, traditions and you’re dipping the children in it; christened!” she laughs, explaining that she wants to inspire the next generation to see that old traditions can be just as relevant today.
“It’s working really well,” she says. “We have over 500 children in the club and it’s brilliant.”
Edwina’s dancing also saw her appointed as the choreographer for acclaimed director Ken Loach’s 2014 film, Jimmy’s Hall, which told the true story of Jimmy Gralton: the only Irish citizen ever to be deported from his own country. His crime? Building a dance hall, just up the road from where Edwina lives.
That experience introduced Edwina to the world of film, and she now makes documentaries herself, mostly focusing on culture, nature and most importantly, community.
She also works as a producer on events, ranging from local crossroad dances to the Sowing The Seed project, where she is co-ordinating a group of over 300 people who are growing oats, many for the first time, with local farmer Tommy Earley of Mount Allen Eco Farm giving the use of a field for those who don’t have land of their own.
The crop will be harvested in September, and the straw collected and dried to make hats for the “Mummers”, who are like the Wren Boys, but go door to door over the 12 days of Christmas to bring in luck for the new year.
Edwina believes the project has many benefits, from reconnecting people with the land to reviving the old traditions. But ultimately, it comes back to community.
“There’s something really special about us all going into Tommy Earley’s farm and everybody just shaking seed together, you know? It’s the way farming used to be done I guess, it’s that tradition, compared to the farmer standing on his own in his field today,” she says.
Love for Leitrim
Aside from the arts and culture, Edwina has also been involved in the Save Leitrim campaign, which was established to call for a halt to the mass planting of conifers like sitka spruce in favour of native broadleaf forests in the county.
“There are so many better options that we could be doing with high-nature value farming,” believes Edwina, who is worried about the impact on biodiversity and local communities.
“I’ve met in the Dáil quite a few times with politicians involved in farming and the first thing they say- to the men that I’m with- they say, ‘Well Leitrim people need to be compensated for their land’ and straight away that word ‘compensated’ means there’s something wrong with our land. And I always pull them up on it, saying, ‘Can you tell us that we are going to be rewarded for our land,’ because that changes the mindset of people.
“And we have beautiful land. Our land is wet, yes, and it’s rushy and it’s beautiful and it can do loads. It’s absolutely well able to farm, well able to grow oak trees all over the place, so for us to be told that our land is fit for nothing else, it really makes my blood boil. Fit for nothing else only to grow conifers is like a knife through the heart of a person who really tries to promote her county.”
Whether dancing, teaching, filming or campaigning, community is at the heart of everything Edwina does.
It was surely a factor that saw Edwina win the outstanding contribution award at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards in April; and will continue to inspire her as she starts a new role this September as artist in residence at DCU St Patrick’s campus for 2022/23, focusing on arts though education with young people and children.
But while her work might take her all over, Leitrim is always home. Edwina is married to Kerry man Michael O’Rourke, who she met through dancing, naturally enough.
“But trying to get him to dance these days is like pulling teeth,” she laughs. “I have no All Ireland medals, none, and he has about 20 of them! I’m like, ‘You’re the professional Michael!”
But it seems that their children- Páidí (3) and Nell (8 months)- are following in their footsteps. Literally.
“We were in the garden centre there last week and Páidí found a little broom, like a small version of the brush, and he was like, ‘Brilliant!’ And he put it down and was testing it, jumping across it,” smiles Edwina of her son’s early attempts at brush-dancing.
“I was like, ‘Good man, Páidí, good man!’ Any one else would be like, ‘Great brush for brushing!’ Not Páidí!”