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Music rising from the ashes of abuse


'The Boy at the Gate' by Danny Ellis, book coverDuring the time of big Irish families in the pre-pill era, boys might be under less parental control than ought to be possible today when the Irish birth rate, although the highest in Europe, is a modest 2.1. So, it was not unusual for boys to get into trouble and be deemed dangers to society or to property or to apple orchards.

The result was that they might be sent to the large industrial school run by the Christian Brothers in the north Dublin suburb of Artane. A frazzled parent might well threaten their child with such an outcome in an effort to frighten the recalcitrant one into conformity.

In practice, many of those who ended up in Artane were there because they had been abandoned or because it was the opinion of authorities that their families were unable to look after them. It was not a badge of honour for the family or a situation fondly anticipated by the child.

I came across the story of one such boy recently. Danny Ellis was an inner city kid, his father in America for work, his young mother not able or not willing to look after him and his four younger siblings. These were taken away to be cared for by nuns and finally his mother took Danny to Artane, telling him she had to go to hospital and would come back for him at Christmas. He never saw her again.

At the time, the school had some 800 boys in close dormitory and refectory quarters. It was no place for the timid or the weak. Discipline was primitive and based around liberal use of the strap, something that was widely known in society if only because it was common in all schools, if not always as enthusiastically.

Come the first Christmas, eight-year-old Danny opts not to go to a film in the city with the others, deciding instead to wait at the gate for his mother. He is seen by an old brother, long retired and given to praying aloud in the chapel, to the amusement of the boys. He knows Danny's situation and tries to break it gently to him.

He takes him in from the cold, gives him something to eat and drink. 'In one sacred moment that I would spend most of my early life fighting against, that saintly man carried me across the divide between my infinite soul and my tiny, tortured identity,' he writes.

In time, Danny was saved by being given the chance to join the famous Artane Boys Band, where he played the trombone. In their stylish red and blue uniforms and short flowing cloaks, they were a central part of big football and hurling games of my youth. They played before the game and at half time, leading the teams in a formal march, 60 or more kids blowing brass and beating drums, followed by brawny hyped-up athletes.

The thousands in the stands were unaware of the harshness that these boys were faced with every day.

Some of the brothers probably knew older brothers who had known Edmund Rice himself. The Catholic educationalist who founded the Christian Brothers was strongly against corporal punishment; two generations separate a saint from followers who brought a reputation for cruelty everywhere they went. 

The Ryan Report of 2009 opened the eyes of the country and the world to a still more upsetting form of cruelty; criminal behaviour that has forever trailed anyone associated with Artane. Even the brother who ran the band and was synonymous with it around the world was accused of sexual abuse.

Now in his 60s, Danny Ellis has made his livelihood out of the music he learned in Artane. He says that though there were always whisperings, nods and winks about sexual abuse, 'I never came across it while I was there.'

There is no upside to the stories of abuse in church-run institutions. There is only deep shame and anger. But I think of that old Christian Brother, nearing his dotage, trying to help a lost eight-year old child in the way that Edmund Rice would have done or De La Salle or Marcellin Champagnat.

And I know from my own experiences that there were many more of him than of the other kind.

Frank O'Shea headshot, glasses, smilingFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer. 


Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, church sex abuse, Ryan report



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Existing comments

Danny Ellis' story is a compelling one. The role of Catholic clergy in shepherding young lives has impacted society in many positive ways - the enacting of a faith-filled life in nurturing young souls is incalculable. That some clergy abused the trust placed in them should not diminish this achievement - but it necessarily must. God sets pretty high standards. And the scarring of a life cannot be mended easily. That the abuse is now publicised, and acknowledged, means some small steps have been taken towards healing.

Pam | 24 October 2012  

Thank you Frank for an article providing a balanced view. While there can be no denying abuse happened , the Christian Brothers, worldwide have done some amazing work, and continue to do so. They, encouraged by their Congregational Leader, Philip Pinto are continually challenging themselves to work for justice and work alongside people on the real margins. Lots of others are not prepared to go there! I love them, and their work!

Lynne Moten | 24 October 2012  

While we continue to deal with the terrible abuse and coverups which have plagued the church, it is always good to be reminded about the many good men and women who have shaped so many of our lives in so many positive ways. I guess that's partly why I still remain in the Church. I am keen to read the book! Thanks Frank.

Carmel Warnock | 24 October 2012  

Thanks, Frank. Indeed, there were more good than bad and I am ever grateful for the Marist and Christian brothers who were guides and inspirations for me when I was a student and later when they were colleagues.

ErikH | 24 October 2012  


Michelle Goldsmith | 24 October 2012  

Having been educated by both the Christian & Marist Brothers during by primary & secondary schooling I certainly encountered many of the Old Christian Brothers referred to in Frank's article rather than the minority that seem to pre-occupy some shallow journalists

Brendan Ryan | 24 October 2012  

Thank you Frank, for your thoughtful and compassionate reflections. I'm a Melbourne Marist Brother and composer and have written a Hymn of Healing for the Church. It's available free from my website at www.maristmusic.org.au Best wishes and thank you for your article. Michael

Br Michael Herry | 17 February 2014  

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