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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Which Drummer Are You Marching To?

      “Eccentric? If you feel that you might be, contact Dr David Weeks at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital Phone; 44 131 536000.”

      Don’t rush to the telephone. Those were words put on cards more than a quarter of a century ago by the good Doctor and displayed in pubs, launderettes, libraries and supermarkets in Edinburgh. (And no, before you ask, I didn’t reply to it.)

       Dr Weeks, who was principal clinical psychologist, at the hospital, had found that the, “ actual scientific knowledge about eccentrics was virtually non-existent.” So he decided to do a study .

      The dictionary Definition of an eccentric is: “A person of unconventional and slightly strange views or behaviour.” Of course as has been pointed out an eccentric is not necessarily out of step, just marching to a different drummer. In Dr Weeks’s study he found that eccentrics had a higher level of mental and physical health than the population at large. And they tend to be above average intelligence. (Didn’t Dickens refer to “ the eccentricities of genius.”) It was also found that although eccentrics are not happy all the time, ( how could they? ) they tend to be fairly contented with their lot.

      And, like OCD sufferers, most eccentrics know that they are “different.” Most of them became aware of this as children because they were constantly in search of answers. When an eccentric child asked their parent “why” he or she wasn’t satisfied with “just because” or “ because I said so” as an answer. Dr Weeks points out that curiosity is the only human motivation that is primary intellectual.

      If you are an eccentric you are in good company. Down through the ages the list of eccentrics included, William Blake, Alexander Graham Bell, Emily Dickenson, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes and Albert Einstein to mention but a few. Einstein said, ”The normal adult never bothers his head about space-time problems. Everything there is to be thought about, in his opinion, was already done in early childhood. I, on the contrary, developed so slowly that I only began to wonder about space and time when I was grown up. In consequence I probed deeper into the problem than an ordinary child would have done.”

      It would almost appear that anybody who was worth a damn for anything was an eccentric. According to Freud creative people enjoyed “looseness of repression” a temporary removal of intellectual control which permitted them to make achievements of what he described as “special perfection.”

      How are we fixed in Ireland for eccentrics? James Joyce is on the list. “D’you Remember Yer Man“? A book by Bobby Aherne lists more than 100 Dublin eccentrics alone. Most of them are dead with a couple of exceptions including Pat Ingoldsby. Mr. Aherne also lists one Brendan Kilkenny who was a DJ on a radio station where I used to present a programme. It will give you an idea of what the rest of us were like when I say that Brendan didn’t stand out.

      Liverpudlien singer-songwriter, Colin Vearncombe moved to west Cork because, he said” . . . eccentricity is tolerated here.” In the past Cleric John Barrett of Trinity College, Dublin was a famous eccentric. He was born the son of a Church of Ireland cleric in County Laois, spoke Latin and Greek fluently but had difficulty with the English language. When he died in 1821 it was discovered that he had saved his income and left £80,000 "to feed the hungry and clothe the naked".

      Are there many eccentrics about now? The word eccentric is hardly ever heard now to describe someone’s behaviour.

      I can remember it being used to describe those with Bohemian leanings . People who were generally well educated, often members of the upper classes but mostly uncaring about what others thought of their dress and style but who lived in their own world and among their own sort. They were called eccentric. The rest of us who were outside the Pale were known as “a bit odd” or “stone mad.” Or . . .in Dublin “a character.” Where have they gone? Is there no room for modern day eccentrics? There are plenty of crackpots around still but are they eccentrics or simply looking for attention? Dr Weeks points out that, “True eccentrics are never acting. They are strong individuals with strange inclinations of their own, which they are not afraid to express.”

      In the past it was looked on mainly as an English thing but of course America had its share. Joshua Abraham Norton is a perfect example. In September 1859, he laid claim to the position of Emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humoured by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honoured in the establishments he frequented.

      If you exhibit such traits as optimistic realism, originality, heightened imagination and indifference to the approval of society, according to Dr Weeks, you are most likely an eccentric. In his book “Eccentrics, he observes that, “Eccentric behaviour has always been more frequent among the leisured classes for eccentricity itself is essentially a leisure activity.” That makes sense to me; I didn’t ever have the money to be a true eccentric and if you are trying to hold on to a job by the skin of your teeth you can’t really tell the boss to “go away” or words to that effect. The good doctor gives a table of the social class distribution of the condition:

  • Aristocracy 16%
  • Landed Gentry 21%
  • Upper Middle Class 49%
  • Lower Middle Class 10%
  • Working Class 04%

       (I don’t know where I fit in there as one of my old teachers once described me as “no class.”!)

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