Perhaps the best legacy of all is laughter. When Jim Greeley died suddenly, having just turned 53, his partner, his family and huge circle of friends were devastated. Yet when they came together to console each other, within minutes, memories of Jim released serial, healing laughter.
He has been described as one of the great characters of the Irish fashion industry. That is true, but of course everyone is much more than any one person thinks they are. Jim had many facets, all of them fascinating, and he touched so many people’s lives that the full account of the good he did can only be guessed at.
The most sensitive of men, his antennae always picked up a person’s troubles, no matter how well disguised. He was a deep listener, and knew exactly when to listen and when to make you laugh at yourself.
He was born in Kevin Street in the Dublin Liberties. His mother had been a French polisher, and his father collected and sold antiques and memorabilia. One of his aunts, Nelly Molloy, preserved her Iveagh flat in Patrick Street in the original Edwardian style. One of Jim’s brothers, Tommy, and one of his two sisters, Mary, were in the well-known group the Ivy Folk in the early seventies, while a second brother, Fran, was in the The Ohio Showband. The family home was a treasure trove of Art Nouveau posters and antiques, but more than that, it was a beacon of hospitality, his mother Maisie caring for and deeply interested in the characters that Jim brought home. His second sister, Nancy, still lives in Kevin Street.
In Synge Street CBS, he met Paddy Doyle, the author of The God Squad, and this was to be a life-long friendship, begun when Jim, in a typical gesture, manoeuvred Paddy’s wheelchair up and down the six flights of stairs in the school, to much hilarity. Another life-long friendship blossomed when he took up window dressing with Maura Smith in Brown Thomas of Grafton Street in the early seventies [nb. when it was in the current M&S building]. Never were mannequins dressed professionally with so much fun.
In 1974, he traded his blue dungarees which were his trademark in Brown Thomas for a nurse’s uniform in Stewart’s Hospital, where he was to work for thirteen years. Friends from that period noted his sensitivity and dedication in working with the clients there, once again disguised by a sense of fun.
Around this time he harboured the ambition of buying a hearse and painting it pink, in order to drive around town and gauge the reaction. He never hid the fact that he was gay, yet he never flaunted it either. It simply didn’t occur to many of his friends until he met Richard in the mid- seventies. When finally asked directly by a woman, a close friend of fifteen years, he laughed heartily.
Jim treated everyone with the same humanity, whether they were street walkers or ambassadors. On one occasion in the eighties, he was returning from a fancy-dress party, and on getting into his car which was parked by the canal, a brolly crashed onto the roof. When a startled Jim looked out to see the slight figure challenging him, recognition dawned. “Ah, Jim,” she said, “I didn’t recognize you. I thought someone was trying to steal your car!”
Such was the love and devotion he inspired.
In the late eighties he went into partnership with Richard to run the Richard Lewis Couture Salon in South Frederick Street. With his passion for art and photography which he’d had from an early age, it was a natural move, and allowed him to develop his impressive organisational skills. He had a particular flair for finding appropriate venues for Lewis’s shows, most lately in the beautiful Art Deco former Gas Company, now the TCD School of Nursing, in October. In his last few years he took to computer technology, and maintained the Richard Lewis website.
At his crowded funeral in Mount Jerome, Richard paid him this moving tribute: “We had thirty-one wonderful years together. How many people can say that?”
Peace to your ashes, Jim, and thanks for the many laughs.
Jim Greeley. 1953-2006.
[First appeared in The Irish Times (hard copy edition only) Monday and Tuesday, January 1 and 2, 2007]
Update February 2010: Richard alerted me to the video of You Were Life, a song about Richard and Jim in the show Silver Stars. Further update: the video is now private.
Written by Sean Millar, and directed by Brokentalkers
this performance was in The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York.