Chris Moyles

By Matt Elton, 22 July 2009 - 3:14pm

Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles goes back to his Irish roots to find out how his family managed to escape the slums of Dublin.

Chris Moyles

The outspoken disc jockey shows a more reflective side as he traces his Irish roots, a tale of overcoming the odds.

Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was raised in Leeds, but with a sense that Ireland too was home. “I’m really, really proud of being northern,” he says, “but I kind of feel as though I should be Irish.” Family holidays were spent in Eire, while everything Chris already knows about his family history suggests strong Irish roots. Will his research confirm this?

After a visit to Leeds to see his parents, Chris heads for Dublin. He’s keen to learn more about his grandmother, Hannah Nelson. As a young woman, Hannah worked in a Jacob’s biscuit factory. In the 1920s, a time of turmoil in Ireland, this was a prized job because the company had a reputation as being progressive employers. A picture of Hannah from the era shows a smiling young woman.

Yet this is by no means the whole story. Archives show Hannah as living with someone called Margaret O’Keeffe, but who was she? Trying to solve the mystery, Chris looks at the 1911 census. It shows Hannah living on Cook Street. It was in the heart of a slum area where the death rate was as high as Calcutta.

Gradually, Chris untangles the bones of a sad story. Hannah was born in England to a soldier father. Her mother, Chris’s great-grandmother, Annie, was admitted to South Dublin Union Workhouse in 1913. She probably had tuberculosis and died in 1914, aged just 33. Margaret O’Keeffe was Annie’s mother and Hannah’s grandmother. Chris refuses to be downhearted by what he’s found. Hannah, after all, escaped the toughest of backgrounds and lived to be 70. “As long as we keep it up and we don’t go back to this [poverty], there might be some hope for this family,” he says.

Shortage and sacrifice

Next, Chris heads for Ballina in County Mayo in search of information about his father’s side of the family. It’s soon clear it will be another story of hard times. At St Muredach’s Cathedral, Chris sees records of his family and learns that a late as 1898, long after the great potato famine, there was a localised food shortage.

This is reflected in the story of the Ormsby family, from whom Chris is descended. Of 15 children, only five survived, including Chris’s great-great grandmother. “To find out that somebody related to me lost 10 children is just mind-blowing,” he says. The Ormsbys lie in pauper’s graves, marked only by stones painted white to mark where bodies lie. “This feels like proper dead and gone,” says Chris.

But there are lighter moments too. Chris had been told his surname meant soldier in Gaelic. In fact, he learns, it means someone who was a servant to monks. That’s not to say Chris doesn’t find a soldiering forebear. His great-grandfather, James, was a staunch nationalist, a member of the Irish Volunteers who pledged to safeguard Irish Home Rule. Yet, like many at the time, he was also a reservist, who was sent to the Western Front with the Connaught Rangers.

Chris’s last journey is to Ypres in Belgium to see where his forebear died in 1914. It’s a harrowing story of men outnumbered five to one by the Germans, yet holding the line. During the so-called ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, the rifle fire from British positions was so rapid the Germans thought they were facing machine guns. He’s clearly moved to see his great-grandfather’s gravestone. “If I’d have read this a year ago, the name Moyles would have been the only thing that really meant anything to me,” he says, “but now I understand the whole thing.”

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