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Opinion: All hail The Dice Man, the High King of Grafton Street

On the 25th anniversary of the passing of Thom McGinty, Robert O’Byrne and Trevor White pay tribute to one of Dublin’s best-loved characters.

Robert O'Byrne & Trevor White

DUBLIN HAS LONG been renowned for its street characters. People like Zozimus and Bang Bang became famous far beyond the city’s boundaries.

The Diceman belongs to that honourable tradition. His real name was Thom McGinty, and he died exactly 25 years ago.

Professor Brendan Kennelly once observed that McGinty’s gift was to mesmerise his audience. Time and again, bang in the middle of Grafton Street, Kennelly found himself “gazing on this figure, utterly immobile or moving with a slowness so perfectly measured as to be almost imperceptible.” So who was the Diceman?

Thomas McGinty was born in 1952 in a village outside Glasgow. His father was from Donegal, his mother from Wicklow, and every summer the family would holiday in her home town of Baltinglass. Thom served as an altar boy and briefly considered becoming a priest. Instead, he went to Strathclyde University to study accountancy.

However, he failed to complete the course, and in order to earn money, he became an art school model. His first job was, he later remembered, “hanging naked from a balcony in a crucifix position, balancing on my left toe.”

In 1976, with £40 in his pocket and the hope of work as a life model, Thom arrived in Dublin. For a few weeks, he survived on his small savings and by selling various personal possessions.

Then one evening, as he later recalled, “I said I’m going down to the Dandelion Market the next day and I’m gonna sit in make-up and gear and hope people give me money.”

The following day he dressed up as a white-faced clown and sat very still and silent behind a sign: ‘IN LOVE WITH THE COUNTRY BUT UNABLE TO GET EMPLOYMENT, PLEASE GIVE GENEROUSLY, THANK YOU.’ Benefactors were rewarded with Thom’s signature trait: a wink.

Thom became involved with the Grapevine Arts Centre, a community cultural venue then located on the northside of the city. There he posed as a model for life drawing classes, before running various workshops and performing in shows. “In the run-down Dublin of the 1970s,” wrote Dermot Bolger many years later, “he brought immediate colour into our lives while living in a succession of flats in semi-derelict Georgian Dublin.”

Thom also did some acting work, including a role as the Executioner in the Gate Theatre’s classic production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Directed by Steven Berkoff and presented in the style of a 1920s silent film, the work was described by the Irish Times as “greatly daring, magisterially consistent and icily brilliant.” As the Executioner, Tom had no speaking lines but was a constant presence on stage.

When the owner of The Diceman, a games shop off Grafton Street, wanted someone to stand outside the premises publicising his business, Thom took the job, initially just at weekends. But it soon became a more permanent position. Hence the name by which he was best known: The Diceman.

LMOD Diceman Exhibit 1 credit Derek Speirs

After three years, the shop closed, but Thom found similar employment in the Grafton Street area advertising other retail premises.

Depending on the occasion, and the wishes of the client, he might dress as Anna Livia, like an ATM machine or a cup of tea, as a daffodil or a tube of toothpaste, like Judas Iscariot, Cupid or Dracula, even the Sacred Heart.

Initially, thanks to his training as an artists’ model, Thom would stay in the same spot like a living statue. However, not moving proved a problem. “The slow walk I developed was a response to continually being told by the Gardai that I was breaking the law by standing motionless.” In order to avoid arrest for loitering, he began to glide almost imperceptibly along the street.

This stately pace, with torso and head immobile, meant it could take a couple of hours to cover just a few hundred yards.

Thom often liked to appear inside a frame. One of his best-known incarnations was as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a sign at the bottom of the frame describing him as ‘Mona McGinty’. This guise involved wearing a long wig and black bodice inside a gold frame. “The bare décolletage in winter can be a problem,” he revealed, “but a poloneck on Mona Lisa just wouldn’t work.” From the waist down, and visible below the bottom of the frame, his legs were incongruously encased in a pair of rugby shorts, green football socks and black plimsolls.

It’s easy to take for granted Ireland’s liberal attitude in areas such as sexuality, but a few decades ago, circumstances were very different. As a gay man, and a high-profile presence on Dublin’s streets, Thom became a champion of gay rights, and he was among the pioneers who helped to ensure that more liberal attitudes took hold in Ireland.

Thom’s choice of career was not without its hazards; on at least two occasions, an attempt was made to set him alight. More often he would be poked and prodded and pinched and would go home to find himself covered in bruises.

In 1984 he found a minder, former civil servant Aidan Murphy, whose role initially involved making sure Thom was left alone. However, Aidan soon took on the job of manager. Thanks to him, Thom was invited to participate in events all over Europe. But Thom always returned to his home turf: Dublin’s Grafton Street.

In 1991, Thom was hired to promote a production of The Rocky Horror Show. As always, his choice of costume reflected the character of the work, so he turned up on Grafton Street in cerise basque, black fishnet tights and stack-heeled shoes. One afternoon, he was arrested by two Gardai and taken to Pearse Street station, charged with acts contrary to public decency under Section 5 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Amendment Act, 1871, and with breach of the peace.

According to one of the arresting guards, complaints had been made that Thom’s buttocks were clearly visible, “and the only thing covering his genitals was a G-string.” Asked to put on something else, he pointed out that these were his working clothes and he had been contracted to wear them.

He was eventually released from the garda station when someone brought him a raincoat. Two days later, after pleading not guilty to the charges, he was remanded on bail at Dublin District Court.

The case attracted enormous publicity, and there was a very large press presence when Thom returned to court, this time wearing blue overalls and accompanied by his mother Mary.

Asked by the defence counsel if he had seized the offending garments being worn by Thom, one of the guards responsible for the arrest explained he had not done so “because he had no other clothes to wear.”

Judge Brian Kirby was not amused, declaring, “This is a very serious matter for everyone concerned.” Thom was found guilty of wearing a costume offensive to public decency. However, after promising not to appear in the outfit on the streets again, Judge Kirby applied the Probation Act.

By 1994, Thom was very much a feature of Dublin life, and his absence from Grafton Street was quickly noticed. In October he announced ill-health had obliged him to retire from work. At the end of that month, on Halloween night, a benefit concert, The Diceman Cometh, was held for him in the Olympia Theatre, with performers like Gavin Friday, Kevin McAleer and Alan Amsby (aka Mr Pussy) providing the entertainment before a capacity audience of more than 1,400.

A fortnight later he appeared on the Late Late Show and explained the nature of his illness: a brave move at a time when few people were prepared to admit in public that they had caught the AIDS virus.

In the weeks that followed, he made several other public appearances, not least to emphasise that he was still alive. However, by the start of the following year, his health had deteriorated. Thom McGinty died in his sleep on the night of 20/21 February 1995. His body was discovered on the 21st.

He was 42 years old.

His funeral featured a procession down Grafton Street, which came to a standstill for the occasion.

Thom has become a legendary figure in his adopted city, where he legitimised street performance and demonstrated that in the right hands it could be elevated to an art form.

He also continues to exert an influence: on the evolution of civil rights legislation in Ireland; in the extraordinary productions staged by bodies such as theatre and events company THISISPOPBABY; and in the powerful presence of the likes of Panti Bliss, who might be described as Thom’s natural heir(ess). And now Thom is the subject of a new exhibition in the Little Museum of Dublin.

Twenty-five years on, the Diceman is still with us.

Written by Robert O’Byrne and Trevor White. Robert O’Byrne is a writer and lecturer specialising in the fine and decorative arts. In 2018 he curated the exhibition ‘Ireland’s Fashion Radicals’ for the Little Museum of Dublin. Trevor White was publisher of The Dubliner magazine and founded the Little Museum of Dublin in 2011.

The Diceman exhibition runs in the Little Museum from 21 February-24 May. For more info, see https://www.littlemuseum.ie/the-diceman

 

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