An Irish singer/songwriter’s powerful debut memoir about growing up at the notorious Artane Industrial School for orphaned and abandoned boys in Dublin.
When Ellis began writing the lyrics for his 2009 album, “800 Voices,” he found himself unexpectedly overwhelmed by memories of his years at the Artane school for boys, an institution known for mistreating its unfortunate charges. He was just 8 years old when his alcoholic mother left him with the priests who ran Artane. She told her son she would take him home one day; instead, she left for England with a lover and never returned. In a story that alternates between his successful present and harrowing past, Ellis details how he survived the years of savagery at the hands of the school’s sadistic, whip-wielding priests to become a critically acclaimed musician. A combination of street-honed canniness and steadfast friendships with other boys saved him from the at-times bloody extremes of physical victimization. But it was the Artane Boys Band that saved his soul and gave him a place to express the anger, pain and confusion that roiled inside his “fighting Dublin heart.” A priest encouraged him to take up the trombone, an instrument on which Ellis was able to hone his gift for music. By the time he was 15, his skill and talent attracted the attention of a respected Irish musician who helped the young trombonist get work on the Irish show-band circuit after he left Artane. That Ellis uses the narrative to unearth a deliberately forgotten past makes for compelling reading. But what makes his work even more affecting is the way he uses his story to liberate the voices of otherwise forgotten children who endured “one of the most abusive and brutal institutions in Ireland.”
Heartbreak at its most bittersweet.