Friday, August 30, 2013

Asheville author's memoir recalls a brutal orphanage

One night several years ago, Asheville musician Danny Ellis began writing a song about a time in his life he had long sought to bury. 

One stanza in particular told the essence of his story:

"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 eight year old abandoned lad still waits for her right now

The song, “800 Voices,” became the title tune on Ellis’s first DVD, released in 2009. And it led to a memoir, “The Boy at the Gate,” (Arcade; $24.95). First published in Ireland, his native country, the book is out this week in the United States.

Ellis’s memoir recounts a life shaped by the eight years he lived in Dublin’s Artane Industrial School, an orphanage notorious for beating and abusing the boys who lived there. 

He arrived at age eight, abandoned by his mother, and remained until he was 16, when he became a trombonist playing in dance halls across Ireland. 

“The Boy at the Gate” was well-received in Ireland. Early U.S. reviews are also strong. Kirkus Reviews, for instance, praises the way Ellis “uses his story to liberate the voices of otherwise forgotten children.”

That was Ellis’s goal – not to focus so much on the abuse, he says, but on the “courage of the kids who tried to make the best of it.”

Still, the violence he describes is terrifying. When boys get their sums wrong in math class, a teacher whips their hands with a leather strap. When Ellis vomits in class, a teacher beats him. 

But when he joined the Artane Boys Band, music became Ellis’s salvation. The band, famous in Ireland, even played for President Kennedy in 1962, when Ellis was a member. The band, he says, “made the school seem like it was a wholesome place.” 

Ellis, who has lived in Asheville for 15 years, says writing his memoir was one of the most enjoyable creative experiences of his life.  “I would lie in bed with my laptop, close my eyes and go back to the playground,” he says. 

In recent years, Ellis has re-connected with some of his former Artane classmates. But he never found his mom, who left for England after turning her children over to orphanages. “She just disappeared off the face of the earth,” he says.

Ellis will read and perform his songs at 2 p.m. Oct. 5 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.