If it wasn't for music, Danny Ellis might not have been able to overcome the beatings and neglect he suffered during his eight years at the Christian Brothers of the Artane Industrial School, Ireland's most notorious orphanage. In 2009, he channeled those hard years into his beautifully wrought, autobiographical album 800 Voices: My Life in an Irish Orphanage.
At the age of eight, Ellis was left at Christian Brothers by his mother. On his very first day, he didn't know to line up in the schoolyard whenever the whistle was blown, and he was beaten horribly with a black leather strap for his indiscretion. Though Ellis says there were some good brothers at the orphanage, most were emotionally unbalanced men who beat the children for such simple things as a wrong look or imagined slight. As a result, they lived in constant fear.
Many of Ellis' peers found solace in drink and dissipation, but he found another escape. "Music saved my life," he says. "It was a refuge where you could take your pain and release it with the sound. I don't know what would've become of me if I hadn't found that."
He played trombone in the famed Artane Boys Band, and the band offered him not only succor but an avocation. When he finally left Artane at 16, he quickly joined a show band and spent the '60s and early '70s playing Dixieland jazz across the dance halls of Ireland. He placed a song in the Irish Top Ten, and played with Graham Parker and the Rumor. Later, he'd work as a songwriter, but rarely as a singer.
But decades later, he sat down with his keyboard and began to write about his days at Christian Brothers: "800 voices echo cross the gray playground / Shouts of fights and God knows what, I still can 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."
Out of that, 800 Voices slowly emerged. "It was like I'd opened these floodgates," he says. "All these memories poured out. All these emotions I'd hidden away."
Over the next five years Ellis would write 24 songs about this time; 16 would make the album. The result is a keenly rendered and heart-breaking tale that is frank in a way only 40 years of distance can provide. For Ellis, the bitterness has long since faded away and what remains is a story about the resilience of the human spirit.
The spare songs are mostly accompanied by tender, understated acoustic guitar with subtle flute touches here and there, but nothing that distracts from Ellis' stark poetry. "Writing the songs was a strange experience," he says. "I discovered the eight-year-old child inside me and the loneliness and terror he felt. With each song it felt like I was tapping into that eight-year-old waiting for his mother and each song gave him more strength to tell the story.
"As an orphan there's a gnawing feeling that you're responsible, that somehow it's your fault. In writing these songs I finally came to accept that none of it was my fault," Ellis adds. "My whole life has changed."
Beyond that, other orphans have told him how his songs have helped them find their own peace. "I'm glad my music can play some part in helping them face up to what happened to them and start healing," he says.
In 2011 Ellis released his third album, The Space Between the Lines, and last September he published his autobiography, The Boy at the Gate in England, which reached No. 2 on the non-fiction chart. It will be released here in September, and Ellis hopes to have a new album coming out sometime after that.
"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," Ellis says. "The Brothers didn't put an end to our hope, our humanity, and our optimism."