Writing the wrongs of the orphanage


Nearly half a century after turning his back on Artane, Danny Ellis has finally documented his experiences in a compelling collection of songs, writes SIOBHAN LONG

CHILDHOOD, FOR MANY, can be about as far removed from sweetness and light as Tony Soprano is from a gong for law-abiding citizenship. For some, childhood horrors stop lives dead in their tracks, strangling emotional development and tethering the individual forever to the past. Others somehow manage to deal with those fractured early years, not so much leaving them behind, as allowing the experience to colour, shape and mould an adulthood into something that’s not just worth living, but worth celebrating too.

Danny Ellis is a survivor of Artane Industrial School. Incarcerated there at the age of eight, following his parents’ separation, and their inability to cope with a gaggle of young children, Ellis had little choice but to find whatever foothold he could amid the melee of 800 boys, all scrambling for their chance to get by.

This year, some 46 years after he left Artane at the age of 16, Ellis released a compelling collection of songs documenting his Artane experience, 800 Voices. Far from being a bitter diatribe, these 16 songs chronicle a life lived with curiosity, of the redemptive qualities of the human singing voice and of the picaresque playground adventures that defined Ellis’s memories of his quasi-orphaned childhood.

The Ryan Report may have cast a cold eye over the horrors of endemic abuse in this country over many decades, but Danny Ellis’s song collection trains a surprisingly forgiving microscope over his own particular experience, and in the process draws the listener into a world where Santa Claus’s bequests consisted of oddly deformed (and much pre-loved) playthings, where boy sopranos elevated Ellis to a place where, he mused, he imagined heaven to be, and yes, where Christian Brothers dealt a raw deal in punishment for the most inconsequential misdemeanour.

Ellis could easily be forgiven for taking up a default position of bitterness as a result of his experiences, but he didn’t. It wasn’t always like this, but 46 years after he finally turned his back on Artane, he no longer looks back in anger. “I think that’s a natural consequence of healing,” says Ellis, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. “It’s a natural result of really, deeply examining yourself.”

One thing that Artane did give Ellis was a musical education. He left the industrial school a skilled trombonist, and rapidly moved through the ranks of the showband circuit, earning in the process a very handsome living as a session player. Ultimately though, in 1973, he chose to toss his financial security to the wind, and left the Miami Showband. Moving first to England, and later to the US, he consciously undertook a journey in personal development, using meditation to push back the veil that had clouded his world view for decades.

“At the time, nobody understood that I needed to search deeply within myself, to come to terms with what I had experienced,” he recounts. “To others, it looked like insanity that I would leave Ireland when I was making such a great living. But you know, there was so little self-examination going on, and I realised that I was falling apart, and I needed to let myself fall apart.”

Initially, Ellis holed up in London, where he got seriously involved in meditation and subsisted by busking on the underground. During this time, he knew he wanted to deal with his own emotionally fractured experience. He watched his married friends, and how they would navigate the daily peaks and troughs of their relationships; he saw how he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t deal with even the tiniest hint of personal criticism. His anger flared if he was slagged. He knew that the brittleness of his responses to those around him wasn’t healthy, and that if he didn’t address them in some way, his future could be even bleaker than his past.

“I just wasn’t able to ‘play’ socially,” Ellis recalls, “but I never put that down to Artane. I just thought that I was a really messed-up individual. At the time I couldn’t even explain it to anyone, because it was all very inarticulate. Gradually though, I began to realise that I had a lot of anger and a lot of fear inside of me.”

An avid and inquisitive reader, who swallowed whole the writings of such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, Ellis felt that music had given him a mental flexibility to open himself up to alternative ways of looking at the world, and looking at himself. Eventually, in 1990, he moved to the US, after meeting the woman who was to become his wife while touring in Spain in the late 1980s.

“I realised that I was a fairly messed-up guy,” he admits, “and that I had to be careful with my temper and with my resentment. I was full of fear. If I was walking down the street, and someone called my name, I’d be overcome by a wave of nausea. I felt so much fear, and I really think that the Christian Brothers did a lot of that.”

Putting some distance between himself and his home place, Danny Ellis began to wake up to what life could offer, rather than what it had offered him. He marvelled at the way in which Americans related to children: they responded with affection, rather than anger, to children’s normal, everyday mishaps.

“I saw my wife’s tolerance, patience and understanding in dealing with her own daughter. I had never experienced anything like that. It really started to break my own heart, and was a kind of catharsis that allowed me to enter my own broken heart.” Far from idealising his new home, Ellis simply spotted the essence of how people related to one another, and the opportunity that gave him to loosen the ties that bound him to the past.

“Americans can be very decadent and self-indulgent,” he acknowledges, “but there’s something very decent about most Americans.” Peace of mind came slowly, as he etched out a new career for himself as a singer/songwriter for hire. Then in the dead of night, after he had returned from a gig, Ellis took to his keyboard and the dam burst. The tsunami that was his childhood came rushing forth, and he found himself singing the words that would ultimately become 800 Voices, recalling his childhood belief that his mother would return to Artane for him at Christmas: “When it gets too much for feeling/ You just bury it somehow/ And that eight-year-old abandoned lad/ Still waits for her right now.”

Ellis wasn’t prepared for the impact of giving voice to that long-silenced eight-year-old. “I was shaking like a tree in the wind,” he says. “My knees could hardly keep me up. It was almost like I had shed some really hard shell, and what was left underneath was this vulnerable, abandoned kid. Because what happens is that you get busy creating an adult, you get told to ‘pull yourself together’ so you craft an adult exterior personality which buries the inner self.”

Ellis has just won the Best Lyric prize in the 2009 Just Plain Folks Music Awards, an American award system targeting the “98 per cent of the music world often ignored by the mainstream televised music awards shows deserved its own recognition”. He was also nominated in the Best Celtic Album category and in the Best Contemporary Folk Song category for his transcendent Tommy Bonner.

It seems that Ellis’s highly personal account of a childhood robbed has found purchase in the unlikeliest of corners. “We all have that powerful source inside of us,” Ellis suggests, “but between us and it, there’s this whole pile of crap that we’ve got to deal with first.”

Danny Ellis’s album, 800 Voices: My Life in an Irish Orphanage is available on 800voices.com. He performs at the National Concert Hall in April