"I would tell little stories to my wife and daughter over the years," says singer/songwriter Danny Ellis. It's what dads do: "Back in my day …" and "When I was your age …" — the sort of dad-isms that make kids roll their eyes. No groans from Ellis' family, though. "The look of horror on their faces led me to think I should take a closer look," he says.
The reason for that horror is revealed in the title track of his CD, 800 Voices. "I'll be back for you this Christmas, I could hear my mammy say. And the bitter truth within that lie, I've yet to face today. When it gets too much for feeling, you just bury it somehow. And that 8-year-old abandoned lad still waits for her right now."
In 1955, Ellis, one of many children in an impoverished and fatherless Irish family, was delivered to Artane Industrial School, a Catholic-run home for orphaned and abandoned boys, located in a Dublin suburb.
There were no cunning Artful Dodgers, no plucky Little Orphan Annies and certainly no day-saving Daddy Warbuckses at Artane. Rather, Ellis' story is one of heartbreak: a third-grader sentenced to live out childhood among hundreds of rough and troubled kids where abuse was often and violent, and moments of comfort and tenderness were few. "I'd been waiting half the night as hungry as a goat," is a line from "Who Trew Da Boot"; "I shuttle tweed on looms that groan like torture racks, the clicks and clacks that haunt my dreams," comes from "The Twist Within the Tweed." A Celtic thread runs through the songs, haunting with pipes, whistles and achingly lovely guitar melodies (locally based Celtic guitarist John Doyle is featured on the album, as is fiddler and piper Duncan Wickle). But for all the disc's dark imagery, Ellis doesn't want to focus on the pain of those years. Rather, he wants to talk about healing.
"The CD, unbeknownst to me, came out at a time when Ireland was dealing with a damaged psyche," Ellis says. The Ryan Commission, introduced to investigate the effects of abuse on children in Irish institutions, released its report in May of last year (Ellis wrote the songs for 800 four years prior). The public responded with shock; The Irish Times stated that the report revealed "the map of an Irish hell." But for Ellis, who had survived the atrocities and who had devoted years to meditation and soul searching to understand his own pain, music proved a way to transcend the past.
Ellis actually found music at Artane, where the Artane Boys Band (founded in 1872) was an Irish institution. Though the industrial school closed in 1966 (the grounds now house St. David's School), the Artane Boys Band (which included U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. during the 1970s) still performs. Ellis played French horn in the Artane band (a photo of him in the school uniform graces the cover of his album). "Music saved my life, pretty much," he asserts. "When you take your angst and put it into music, you have a way to discharge."
The musician recalls, in his early days at Artane, hearing a boy named Tommy Bonner sing in the church choir with a voice "so pure, but also really strong. It had an effect on me." Ellis commemorated Bonner in one of his own songs and, after the release of 800, received an e-mail that read, "I think you're singing about my dad." Since then, Ellis and Bonner — along with some of the other Artane students and Ellis' own siblings — have reunited, thanks to the album and the Google search engine. Though Ellis never saw his mother again, he says that writing these songs has brought him peace. "I found that none of it was my fault. Now my health is better. I sleep better. My whole life has changed."
And there are more than a few moments of levity in 800. Ellis points out that "shenanigans" and getting around the rules were part of life at Artane; that sense of mischief is apparent in bright, rhythmic tracks like "Idle Dan." In that song, world beats (thanks to percussionist River Guerguerian) meld with airy Irish melodies to produce a sound that dances between light and dark, funky and sweet, thumbing a nose at sorrow.
Ellis is still performing material from 800 and will return to Ireland this spring — a place he now looks forward to visiting and "getting back to the craic," the Irish term for cutting up. The musician is also at work on his memoirs and a next album, this one focused on "songs about love and the day-to-day." Ellis adds, "But it's also a searching album, as is all of my material."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Danny Ellis (accompanied by Jack Devereux and Jamie Laval)
what: Singer/songwriter performs songs from his album, 800 Voices
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Wednesday, March 17 (7 p.m. $30. dwtheatre.org or dannyellismusic.com)