In 1978, I’m not sure what threatening scenarios garda recruits were trained to deal with before graduating from Templemore. But I suspect these dangers didn’t include the amorous advances of naked gay Scotsmen.
I base this having attended a rambunctious and Rabelaisian house party in Broadstone that year, which – following complaints from neighbours – was raided by a fresh-faced young guard who looked to be barely a week out of the college in Co. Tipperary.
I was only 19 and didn’t know that many people present on the night or what substances they possessed, but looks of alarm suggested that – if his courage hadn’t failed him – the young guard could have been in line for instant promotion.
However, as the young officer stood in the doorway, an apparition appeared on the stairs from the kitchen.
A rare shot of The Diceman (Thom McGinty) out of costume
I felt sorry for the guard because he might well have found a night in Thom’s company enlightening in terms of new ways of seeing life.
This was certainly my experience some months previously when Thom persuaded me to sit up with him all night on a Kilkenny riverbank just for the buzz that he said I would experience by witnessing dawn break around us.
I recall a night of brilliant conversation, which revealed the importance – and at times the price – of following your dreams.
Thom was only 26 back then but his life was already shaped by his resolute determination to be true to himself.
As we watched dawn break, both of us penniless, I could never have imagined that, 17 years later, he would be so beloved in his adoptive city that all of Grafton Street stopped in 1995 to allow his friends and fellow street-performers to carry his coffin down that street which he graced so often in brilliantly daring costumes.
Or that today, a quarter century after his death, a new exhibition celebrating his extraordinary life is running in the Little Museum of Dublin, which is now open to visitors again after the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.
Although remembered as The Diceman, he did not adopt this nom de plume until asked to do street performances to advertise a shop of that name.
Thom achieved some financial security by creating breath-taking living art street performances to advertise this and other shops.
But it would do him a disservice to just remember him as a colourful billboard – albeit one who pushed the boundaries so far that he was arrested for public indecency when advertising The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Thom was far more than that – an outsider who arrived in 1976 to seek a new life in a Dublin not quite ready for him.
I remember his freezing attic flat off Mountjoy Square, up long flights of crumbling stairs with parts of the banisters missing.
Despite living in poverty at that time, he produced fabulous experimental mime theatre shows in an artistic collective, The Grapevine, in which I played a small part.
I still recall how Thom’s manic energy, mischievous humour and artistic intelligence lit up the grey conservative Dublin at a time.
Whether performing in The Gate Theatre – remaining utterly still as the menacing executioner in Steven Berkoff’s production of Salome – or performing on the street to highlight campaigns for gay rights or the Birmingham Six, Thom’s magic was, in Brendan Kennelly’s words, “his ability to mesmerise his audience, to lure them out of their busy city selves and to take them away into that land of perfect stillness”.
It was an art practised with courage, defying gurriers who tried to pinch him or set him alight as he stood still in Grafton Street.
It was a gay life lived with courage too, challenges faced head on.
I remember leaving a pub in an Irish town where local thugs, who sensed something different about Thom, were waiting. My Finglas instincts were to run. Thom’s approach was braver. He walked towards them, proclaiming, “Rough trade, I love it.” They fled, shocked at being confronted.
When my first son was born he sometimes helped me wheel the pram in our local park. One afternoon in 1994 I hailed him on College Green. He didn’t hear me, walking with the slow gait of a sick man.
But I only realised he had Aids when he made a brave appearance on The Late Late Show. Thom helped remove the stigma from Aids by not hiding. His honesty helped many sufferers.
I last saw him at a farewell gig at the Olympia Theatre. His fellow street acts crowned him King of Dublin.
As the crowd roared our approval, it seemed no idle boast. He was our king – king of the misfits, drop-outs, artists and dreamers who dared to be different.
Thom taught us that you only have one life and must be true to yourself. He enriched Dublin with his vitality and originality.
Like many outsiders, he came to epitomise the city.
A quarter century after his death, it’s lovely to celebrate a character who was truly larger than life.
The Diceman exhibition is now running at the Little Museum of Dublin. See littlemuseum.ie for more information