The Boy at the Gate : a review of the memoirs of Danny Ellis

By Noel Howard

December 15    2012



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, Curam.

The Boy at the Gate

Review : The Boy at the Gate by Danny Ellis, published by Transworld Books, 2012.

In the December 2011 issue of the goodenoughcaring Journal I got an opportunity to write about 800 Voices, a CD by Danny Ellis who spent some of his early years in the Artane Industrial School, Dublin. Artane is synonymous with much of what was wrong in the Irish industrial school system. It is one of the schools which gets much attention in the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009), more commonly known as the Ryan Report. 800 Voices has now been followed up by a book which in its content and tenor reflects and develops much of what is so eloquently and poignantly evident in the songs Danny sings on the CD. Some reviewers have suggested that listening to the music and reading the book complement each other perfectly.

The Boy at the Gate differs from many of the memoirs written about life in the Irish industrial school system in that understandable and legitimate elements of bitterness and resentment are absent. Is this due to the author’s personality or the level of success or not that he has been able to bring over time to putting the past in its place? One suspects that it’s a bit of both. What is clear however is that he acknowledges where music and significant relationships played such an important part in getting to a stage where elements of the past have been understood, reflected on and largely put in their place.

The reader is gradually drawn into the life of the author prior to and from his first introduction to the harsh realities of 1950s Artane and the layered, sub-cultural ramifications of daily life. He suffered, like the hundreds of others, from neglect, physical and emotional abuse. One of the more interesting, honest and brave aspects of this autobiography is that there is little reference to sexual abuse. There is a fleeting, humorous reference to it in the context of a conversation Danny and his wife, Liz, had at one stage. But,be clear. Sexual abuse, according to the Ryan Report “was a chronic problem in Artane” and…”there was a significant amount of predatory sexual behaviour by bigger boys on smaller, vulnerable ones…” (Ryan Report 2009 Vol 1 7.549 [1] [4]). Danny Ellis could, in my view, have attempted to draw the whole area of sexual abuse or “badness” as it was referred to in Artane into his story as, like many other boys, he was aware of it in the way children are without quite understanding it. It is to his credit that he is true to himself and desists from exploiting something just for the sake of sensationalism.

Gradually emerging also as the story unfolds is how he comes to see Artane as a place he understands to a degree and can identify with more than with his family and the odd security this gave him. His relationship – or lack of – with his father and mother are heartbreakingly poignant in places with his image as a child of what both might be and should shattered in no uncertain terms.

“In Artane the blessing of music touched my soul,” he says early in the book. Ultimately, music and his relationship with his wife were his saviour in terms of challenging the past, agonising over it, accepting it and finally putting it its place. The Artane Boys Band was synonymous with church, state, sporting and cultural occasions in Ireland but few outsiders on such occasions had any idea of or, who knows, chose to ignore the institutional regime in which the boys lived.

The band performed in America and Danny’s father met up with him there. The description of that brittle encounter is very well recounted in the book. Danny, however, almost did not survive in the band. Only for the help of one of the brothers who noticed how fed up he was he might never have been allowed back in as a budding trombonist after being thrown out by the brother in charge of the band, Brother Joe O’Connor. Danny’s relationship, at times stormy, with this brother during his years in Artane is complex and changing with the tough, demanding figure emerging as a father figure at times. In the end he is very fair in his assessment and notes the irony in Brother O’Connor’s parting words to him, “And don’t be giving the school a bad name, ya hear.”

Incidentally, this Brother O’Connor got a very bad press for a number of years with suggestions that he sexually abused boys in Artane. In the Ryan Report there is no suggestion of this in the section dealing with the band and while O’Connor did little to desist from physically punishing some of the children he may have been done a grave injustice with reference to sexual abuse by at least one eminent journalist whose groundbreaking work exposed what went on in Irish industrial schools.

Danny’s description of one of the brothers encapsulates what he perceived to be the best and the worst and how the best was clung to with such tenacity. In one of the more powerful paragraphs in the book (p.213) he writes, O’Driscoll embodied the paradox present in so many of the brothers of Artane; on the one hand he was cruel and callous, with one of the most violent tempers I’ve ever seen; and on the other he was a deeply pious man, capable of real empathy and kindness. The madness of Artane was such that we never knew when the viciousness would explode, which should have made us distrustful of even genuine warmth, but when the tiniest spark of humanity was revealed by the brothers, we clung to it for dear life, sensing it was real and the cruelty an aberration. Who can say?

References to humour, outings with the band where Danny stayed with host families, adolescent battles and bickering as well as kindness and humanity by some brothers gives a welcome steer for the reader at times and is a breather from the relentless descriptions of cruelty by some brothers and peers caught up in the sub cultural morass of an institution. The “lock and key” explanation of how boys or girls are conceived is hilarious.

The story is well written and builds gradually, told in alternating descriptions of life in inner city Dublin as a child and in Artane and Danny’s adult life. It moves inexorably for him toward an unbelievable discovery on the very day he left Artane which draws together all that had gone wrong because of human frailty on his mother’s part, her broken promises, her disappearance out of his life and his lingering hope that she would turn up and take him home.

The Boy at the Gate is a welcome addition to the numerous accounts that have emerged about life in Irish industrial schools. Apart from the personal story powerfully told, it’s attempt to make sense of and understand what made Artane what it was is perhaps its greatest achievement. There are parts of it that recall for the reviewer aspects of Founded on Fear by Peter Tyrrell (Transworld Ireland) which tells of life in the 1920s/30s in another school, Letterfrack, also run by the Christian Brothers. Tyrrell’s book, also describes family breakdown leading to placement in an institution with subsequent abuse, neglect and the good and bad to be found among the brothers. Like that story, which asked more questions than gave answers, Danny Ellis has given us in his book a testament to the human spirit, the resilience of children and the humanity and lack of it that was so characteristic of those entrusted in the name of religion with the care of vulnerable children. A wonderful book, well written, which like his CD, 800 Voices, can stop you in your tracks when you least expect it.