Remembering The Diceman: street performer and social activist

A new exhibition recalls the late entertainer Thom McGinty, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

Remembering The Diceman: street performer and social activist

During the 1980s and early 1990s, few Irish public figures were as recognisable as the street artist known as the Diceman.

Passers-by used to marvel at his antics, and his outrageous costumes — magicked up as a pot of tea one day, Dracula or the Mona Lisa painting another day.

He will be remembered in an exhibition, which opens this week on the 25th anniversary of his death, at the Little Museum of Dublin.

“My abiding memory of him is outside Bewley’s on Grafton Street,” says the exhibition’s curator, Robert O’Byrne.

“That was very much his pitch. He was this presence that people used to naturally gravitate towards. A person who had become as much a part of Grafton Street and Dublin as, say, Bewley’s itself — as Bewley’s is an institution, he became one too.”

Diceman’s real name was Thom McGinty. His nickname came from his association with The Diceman, a games shop in Dublin who employed him for three years to promote their goods in fancy-dress costumes.

He was born near Glasgow in Scotland in 1952, but drifted to Ireland in 1976, which he made his home until his death from Aids-related illness in 1995, five years after he had been diagnosed.

Gavin Friday and actress Olwen Fouéré were amongst the pallbearers at his funeral.

Photo: Tony O'Shea
Photo: Tony O'Shea

“Everybody would have said, ‘Hello, Thom’ to him,” says O’Byrne. “They would have known exactly who he was, and they would have looked out for him. Children were fascinated by him. People loved being photographed by him. Initially, he stood still. He had studied mime.

“He was approached by gardaí on a couple of occasions. He risked being charged with the offence of loitering, one of those strange old pieces of legislation.

“The way he overcame that was to move very, very slowly, barely moving at all, so he couldn’t be charged with loitering.

As a result, people would think he almost was a statue. They would stand in front of him talking, with no regard to the fact he was there.

They’d discuss his appearance, whether he was getting fat or that he had hairs up his nose. They’d try to make him laugh. Or poke him or pinch him. He often said when he got home he was bruised.”

Three old friends of McGinty’s — Aidan Murphy, his manager; artist Mick O’Dea; and Susie Kennedy — have helped compile the artefacts for the exhibition, which includes segments on McGinty’s social justice activism, including gay rights and the memorable day he was photographed wearing a giant condom on Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge. to highlight the country’s antiquated contraceptive laws.

“He was the last of the great street characters in Ireland,” says O’Byrne.

“In the exhibition, we refer to a few of them. There was Johnny Forty Coats, who used to wear layers of clothing and was legendary on the streets of Dublin [in the 1930s and ’40s], and a man called Bang Bang, who basically went around the streets, startling people or jumping onto buses going, ‘Bang! Bang!’, as if he was a cowboy in a Western film.

Photo: Tony O'Shea
Photo: Tony O'Shea

Both were much loved, and part of urban legend, as Thom became.

“There haven’t been any street characters like them since. There are lots of street performers today — when Thom started there were none — the streets are cluttered with them, but they’re not personalities.

Do you know who they are? They’re not part of urban folklore. Everybody knew Thom. He lived a very public existence. The smallness of cities and intimacy of city life has disappeared.

“It’s a universal phenomenon,” says O’Byrne. “Individuality that gave cities their character has to some extent disappeared. Every town would have had such people too. They were corner boys, but everybody would salute them and would say, ‘How are you, Mick?’ or ‘How are you, John?’ They had their individual traits. They were like public property.

That doesn’t exist anymore. That’s what’s important about remembering Thom because he was the last of that ilk.”

The Diceman exhibition runs from Thursday, Feb 20, until May 25.

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