At the age of eight, Danny Ellis was separated from his siblings and dropped off at the most notorious orphanage in Ireland. The Artane Industrial School housed 800 orphans and delinquents that nobody wanted—a noisy, ragtag bunch of “humanity’s lost children.” His ma said, “I’ll be back for you at Christmas.” He saw her briefly one more time, and then never again.
I saw Danny Ellis perform part of his memoir the other night. He’s a singer-songwriter, invited to open for Bonnie Raitt last spring. He’s got a gently scuffed voice that goes well with the sweetness of his guitar playing. Ah, and that Irish brogue is the cream on top. Danny has been touring the country telling a touching story of his rough upbringing, singing his way to healing. If he comes to your area, be sure to see him.
Danny came out of the orphanage at age 16 trained to be a cobbler, but music was his calling and soon he was happily making a career of it. He pushed his childhood to the side, “focusing on other things rather than on why my ma left me.” His younger sisters later found him and had to “insert themselves” into his life because he didn’t want be reminded of his abandonment. Late one night many years later, while unwinding at home after a gig, the notes of his past began to flow through his guitar and he realized “there was a part of me still left in the orphanage.” His CD 800 Voices is the tuneful poetry of that part. His memoir, The Boy at the Gate, is the poetic prose. The beautiful, sensitive writing in an online excerpt of the book drove me to go to Danny’s event, which turned out to be well worth the fight against Cardinal Nation traffic heading home after a game 2 NLCS win.
The Boy at the Gate is not all sad sack. Reading to page 44 and skimming through the rest, it is mostly an introspective and often amusing look at bad times and colorful characters. Ellis was born in Dublin, a city he says was full of interesting and humorous people. “Poverty creates characters … Everyone in Dublin was a thespian. Nothing was ever what it seemed.” Of his rough childhood Ellis said, “A kid thinks his life is like other people’s. Even if bad things happen in the morning, something good can happen in the evening. You make the best of it.” He said he never had the energy needed to be hateful or vindictive. “Life is very beautiful despite how bad it can be. We would look for beauty anywhere—in friendships, little animals, bugs.” He writes about a tough boxer who would “sing as if to save his life while saving my life, too.” When Tommy, the fighter, turned 16 and left the orphanage, Ellis knew it was his turn to sing to save his own life. And he did.
The book is written in present tense, transporting us to the rough city streets of 1950s Ireland and refusing to let us go. The prologue alone is gripping, the writing evocative. A soul-satisfying epilogue and an overview of the orphanage’s history end the book. I asked Danny about his beautiful writing style and he explained that the brevity and emotion involved in songwriting lent itself well to writing his memoir. A well-known ghostwriter actually refused the job of writing for him after reading draft pages because they were so well-written. Danny is thinking of writing a second memoir about exploring who he really is. He knows his persona has been shaped by what’s happened to him, so who is he underneath all that? I don’t know, but he sure seemed like a nice guy to me.