800 Voices – the heartache and the healing

By Noel Howard

Date Posted: December 15th, 2011

Noel Howard began his career as a teacher before becoming a childcare worker in the Irish juvenile justice system in Dublin in 1973 and latterly with the HSE (Health Service Executive). He retired as Deputy Director of St. Joseph’s School, Ferryhouse, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in 2008. Currently, he is the co-ordinator of the IASCW (Irish Association of Social Care Workers) and edits the association’s publications including its Journal, Cúram.>



Review : 800 Voices – the heartache and the healing : Danny Ellis (DARA Records : TORTVCD 1190)


It was 1955 and my Ma and Da had broken up. With poor health and five children it was all too much for Ma. She was persuaded by neighbours and the ISPCC to hand us over to the “care” of the State. We were placed in separate orphanages; my two younger sisters in Booterstown, my infant twin brothers in Rathdrum and myself in Artane Industrial School.Ma didn’t have the heart to tell me what was really going on. As she left me at the orphanage gates, she told me she was sick with TB and had to go into hospital for a while but she would be back for me at Christmas.


This is the introduction on the sleeve note of this CD to the first song, “800 Voices,” by Danny Ellis who spent eight years in institutional care in one of Ireland’s best known industrial schools, Artane in Dublin. Artane figures prominently and infamously in the Ryan Report (2009), the commission set up to inquire into child abuse in Ireland’s industrial and reformatory schools.

My initial reaction on coming across this CD was “more misery and do I really want to hear about it all again?” Reading the back page notes led me on however to see and hear what this man, Danny Ellis, had to sing about or as he puts it “I allowed the abandoned child within me to express himself in a song… I knew I’d abandoned him like everyone else and it was time to bring him home.” And he does indeed bring him home in this wonderful collection that can make one laugh or cry, hope or despair, depending on the track chosen.

The 15 tracks are a story in song. A small number of individuals who were victims of the industrial school system in Ireland and have written or spoken about it, have, for different reasons, been able to put their broken, stolen lives into some perspective. In these songs, Danny Ellis has done the same. He has been able to identify the threads of compassion and humanity that were evident in some of the Christian brothers who worked in places like Artane. And he manages to introduce those threads of compassion when you least expect it as when the brother who was in charge of the band gets him involved and thereby actually begins something for Danny by introducing him to music which has benefitted him to this day. That brother, Joe O’Connor, gave him “music, strength and pride.” Likewise, when he is thrown out of the band for a misdemeanour, another brother (O’Driscoll), generally bad tempered,realises how it has affected Danny and says he’ll put in a good word with O’Connor to have him reinstated. It’s all in Music For a Friend and in the written introduction to it Danny says “Here, Brother O’Driscoll embodies the startling paradox found in many of the brothers – and everyone else too; on one hand, bad tempered, petty and murderously cruel and on the other, kind caring and deeply human.” It is really refreshing to hear this as it is often forgotten by many of the commentators in relation to institutional abuse who, often self-righteously, see monstrous depravity everywhere but can’t admit to the paradox so eloquently expressed by people like Danny Ellis. It brings to mind the cliché “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us…” Sometimes, those who try to look for reasons and understand why the good was as much part of some abusers as the bad,can be accused of being apologists for child abuse. Likewise, we must not forget that not all those who worked in such institutions as Artane were child abusers. There were those who, not only never abused children, but were compassionate and caring in harsh and often brutal conditions.

It’s hard to pick any one track that stands out and each listener will pick their own particular choices. Certainly, without giving away the plot as it were, On The Bus Back Home and The Day I Left Artane both poignantly reveal the harsh reality of loss, separation and discovery for Danny in a particular way.

Of course, most of the tracks do this in different ways and I particularly liked The Twist Within The Tweed while Kelly’s Gone Missin’ brings back memories of one of the constants of life in care for children and staff – the absconder. Kelly, like so many others, seized the moment with predictable reactions from staff and boys.

When Tommy Bonner Sang combines so many elements that even for someone like the reviewer, who has scarcely a note in his head, the music is something special never mind the haunting lyrics. As someone who grew up in the 50s listening to the Artane Boys Band play on radio before and at half time in football and hurling games from Croke Park in Dublin the last lines of The Artane Boys Band have a particular resonance…There was nothing in this wide world as glorious or grand As the blast of Freedom yearnin’ From The Artane Boys Band.

By the way, I’m assuming the 800 refers to the largest number of boys who at one time were in Artane together.

Thanks Danny for this unique picture of the good, the bad and the ugly and your attempts to understand it for yourself and allow us the privilege of trying to understand it all too.



John Molloy writes : Like Noel, I too picked up the CD of ‘800 Voices’ with trepidation thinking it would be more woe and misery. I enjoyed the music, particularly because Danny Ellis is the first to ‘normalise’ the horror of what happened at Artane.Many of the songs have what might best be called a ‘MASH’ sense of humour.They tell of resilience and bravery. That sense of humour lures you into a sense of comfort that makes the songs of hurt and isolation even more powerful. I am delighted that Noel has brought focus onto this CD, which for some strange reason has got little airtime on our national radio stations!


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