The story of Danny Ellis


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.

Following its first public performance for the Prince of Wales in 1874, this band went on to become a regular fixture at events in Dublin. They played at all the big matches in Croke Park.

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.