The revelations of the recent Ryan report have shocked the world. People are struggling to understand how the religious orders that ran Ireland’s industrial schools and orphanages were allowed to torture those in their care.
One person who may have the answers as to why society turned a blind eye, but who can tell what it was like on the inside, is Danny Ellis, an Irish musician who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
Danny released his first album – 800 Voices – in June. It’s a collection of songs which tell the story of the eight years he spent in Artane Industrial School, an institution that is now recognized as one of the cruelest of its day.
Should this strike you as a depressing note, rest assured that these songs are brimful of hope. They reflect Danny’s belief in humanity, which has endured throughout his life.
Danny was born in Dublin in 1947. His earliest memory is of his mother, his two sisters and himself sitting around a turf fire in their home, singing Irish ballads and American pop songs. “My mum could raise the hair on the back of your neck when she sang,” he remembers.
At that time, Danny’s father was working in America. “My mother fell pregnant while he was gone and had twins,” he recounts. “This broke the family apart and she was left to raise five children on her own.” She struggled for several years but by the time Danny was eight she had no option but to hand her children over to the care of the State.
“I came home one day and my family was gone,” says Danny. “My mother said she had to leave me in Artane for a while but promised we’d all be back together by Christmas.”
Artane Industrial School was set up by the Christian Brothers in 1871 as a home for orphaned or abandoned boys or those involved in petty crime. By the time Danny arrived in 1955, the majority of its boys were from broken homes.
Coming from a close-knit family, he was thrust into a borstal of 800 boys – a rag-tag bunch he describes as “thieves, tinkers, bullies and blackguards; all screaming and fighting from dawn until dusk.”
The Christian Brothers were just as frightening. Danny was playing in the yard on his first day in Artane when a whistle blew. Within seconds, all of the boys were lined up in neat rows. Nobody had explained this rule to Danny and his failure to obey it had terrible consequences.
“I was beaten with a big black leather strap,” he recalls. “I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the violence of that beating. Having been wrenched from my family without knowing why and then being beaten, I went into the deepest shock.”
Beatings occurred regularly after that. Danny had often played truant from school and was behind the other boys in his schoolwork. “I’d be beaten for not knowing my spellings or my tables,” he remembers. “I was so frightened of the next beating that I couldn’t enjoy anything.”
There was one moment in those early days that allowed Danny a release from his fear. This moment is captured in one of the most moving songs on his album, “Tommy Bonner.”
“Tommy sang at mass that first Sunday and his voice was full of emotion,” says Danny. “It was as though he was crying into his voice, as though he was singing for every one of us. I broke down and cried in a way that I hadn’t allowed myself to do until then.”
Meanwhile, he was counting down the days to Christmas, when he expected to be reunited with his family. However, apart from one 30-minute visit his mother paid him a few weeks after he arrived at Artane, he never saw her again.
“Nobody has seen her since,” he says. “I think she must have been broken by the shame of it. She went to England and got lost.”
Danny was eventually forced to admit he had been abandoned. There was to be no escape from Artane but there was some respite from the violence – in the unexpected form of the Artane Boys’ Band.
Danny had resisted auditioning for the band, believing there was little point as he’d be returning home at Christmas. Once he realized this was a false hope, he auditioned and became a trombone player.
“It was my saving grace,” he realizes now. “Things started to change after I joined the band. Practicing kept me off the playground. I could avoid trouble and not be beaten. I also discovered that I loved music, that I could pour myself into it.”
At one stage, Danny was excluded from the band for fighting. He would not have been allowed to return were it not for the intervention of the kindly Brother O’Driscoll.
“Some of the Brothers were good, almost saintly,” Danny admits. “But others had no control over their emotions. Corporal punishment was their release. They all carried a leather strap and had full permission to use it.”
The abuse wasn’t just physical (or in some cases, sexual). There were quieter acts of cruelty.
When Danny was leaving the school at age 16, he discovered that his twin brothers had been in Artane for the previous two years.
“Nobody had told me and I hadn’t recognized them because I’d last seen them as babies,” he says. “It was too late by then because all I wanted to do was leave. I didn’t want to have contact with family or depend on anyone.”
Nor did he stay in touch with his classmates. Many were so damaged by their time in Artane that they sank into a life of alcoholism, or homelessness and, in some cases, committed suicide.
“I was lucky,” says Danny. “I had music. I found it hard to fit into society but music made it easier. I don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t had it.”
His performances with the Artane Boys’ Band brought Danny to the attention of some of the show bands that were popular in Ireland in the early 1960s. The Boyne Valley Stompers offered him a job when he left school.
“Soon after I left in 1963, I was playing ‘Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey’ as loud as my 16-year-old lungs would let me,” says Danny.
He played with many show bands over the next ten years, including the Miami Show Band with Dickie Rock. He wrote the first original record by an Irish show band – “A Knock on the Door” performed by The Air Chords. He even had a record in the Irish top ten.
“The money was good and I loved the life,” recalls Danny. “There must have been 200 dance halls in Ireland and I played every one of them.”
In 1973, after ten years on the road, it was time for a change. Danny left for England and so began a time of introspection. “The trauma was beginning to surface,” he says. “I had a short fuse, a long face and a hundred emotions I’d never faced. I found it hard to have relationships with women as I hadn’t even seen any in Artane. All I knew was that there was something very wrong inside.”
He tried meditating as a means of self help. All it did was touch the surface of his pain.
The years went by and he continued to play and write music. He met and married an American called Liz and moved to America with her in 1989.
Danny was still haunted by his past. “One night I was playing music at home, winding down after a gig,” he says. “I started to fool around with chords and melodies that were sad and desolate. Out came the words, all at once, of the first verse of ‘800 Voices,’ my CD’s title track.
“800 voices echo/ across the grey playground/Shouts of fights and God knows what/ I can still hear that sound/With their hobnail boots and rough tweeds/ angry seas of brown and green/The toughest God-forsaken bunch that I had ever seen.”
Danny was taken aback by the rawness of the lyrics. After years of denial, he was suddenly overwhelmed by loneliness, anguish and hurt – feelings he had never allowed himself to experience as a child.
His wife encouraged him to continue. Over the course of five years, he wrote 24 songs about his life in Artane.
“Writing the songs was a strange experience,” he says. “I started to discover the eight-year-old child inside me and the loneliness and the terror he had felt. Each song felt like I was tapping into that eight-year-old waiting for his mother. Each song felt like it gave him more strength.”
Sixteen of these songs are now recorded on Danny’s album and he has been pleased by the response so far.
“I’ve been contacted by lads from Artane and other boarding schools who’ve had similar experiences,” he says. “I hope my music can play some part in helping them face up to what happened to them and start some kind of healing.”
The CD reunited him with Tommy Bonner, the boy whose singing made him cry all those years ago. “His son heard the song on the Internet and brought his dad along to a concert I gave in London,” says Danny. “It was the first time we’d seen each other in 50 years.”
Even luminaries such as Bill Whelan have been affected by Danny’s music. “He told me there’s a universal core of feeling in my songs that everyone can understand,” says Danny, proudly.
Danny has also been reunited with his siblings over the years. His two sisters live in America and he sees them often. His twin brothers live in Ireland and he hopes to see them in September.
It will be his first trip to Ireland in a long time and he plans to perform his music while he’s there. In the wake of the Ryan Report, he believes he has an important message:
“I’d like people to understand that there was a great deal of hurt but that beyond the hurt, there’s also hope and strength. The Brothers didn’t put an end to our hope, our humanity and our optimism.”
He would also like to see society face up to the role it played in the abuse. “They turned a blind eye to what was happening,” he says. “This should be recognized. And more than that, the people responsible should admit what they did. They should own up. It would be healing for everybody.”
More than anything else, he wants to reach out to men who were once boys like him, boys who were abandoned to neglect and cruelty. “We were abused and we must recognize that,” he says. “We must bring it into the open. Only then can we get past what happened to us and move on.”
After decades of struggling, Danny finally seems to have succeeded in doing just this. He is now working on a new album – one that is completely unrelated to his life in Artane – and is penning his memoirs.
“That eight-year-old that was buried inside me has been set free,” he says.
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