• Stephen Callaghan

A Souvenir of Mesopotamia - Pioneer Joseph Kelly

Updated: Apr 9, 2021


While looking through online auctions sites I came across the following brass plaque or 'trench art', clearly a souvenir of service in Mesopotamia during the Great War. The details of the person made me curious, who was J. Kelly of Tullamore? While initially he seemed to be a mystery I was able to uncover his story.


Joseph Kelly was born on 15 January 1875, on Henry Street, Tullamore, King’s County. He was the son of Michael Kelly and Bridget Kelly (née Condron). Michael was a boatman on the Grand Canal.


Joseph took in his father’s steps and was also a Grand Canal boatman. From 1894 onwards Joseph developed a problem with alcohol, being held in prison numerous times for assault and drunk and disorderly behaviour. He spent time on Tullamore and Mountjoy prisons.

During the early 1900s Joseph was almost in prison casually with the number of charges against him for being drunk and disorderly.

Joseph appears on the 1911 census, living with his mother Bridget in no 16.1, Henry Street, Tullamore. The census records that Bridget, a widower, as having had 8 children, of whom only two were still alive.


During the Great War Joseph volunteered for service with a labour battalion in the Royal Engineers on 22 June 1916. These battalions were formed around June 1915 and comprised of men who were generally unfit on medical grounds for combat. The men would labour constructing roads and other arduous tasks. These labour battalions were in a sense what the Labour Corps would ultimately do, after it was formed in 1917.


Image courtesy of National Museum of American History

Pioneer Kelly served in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), he was likely involved in the construction of roads around Basra. He served in Mesopotamia for a year, and in commemoration of his service had a souvenir made, which was probably done in a local bazaar. It takes the form a of shield with the cap badge of the Royal Engineers, palm trees, men in boats and the words “Mesopotamia/1916-17”, “J. Kelly. R.E./Tullamore”. He was discharged on 3 August 1917, being found medically unfit for further service. Pioneer Kelly’s service entitled him to the British War Medal, Victory Medal and the Silver War Badge.


Not content with civilian life, Joseph enlisted in the Royal Air Force on 28 August 1918, with a term of service for the duration of the war. He was transferred to the RAF reserve on 19 February 1919, and later discharged 30 April 1920.


Joseph returned to home to Tullamore and died in Birr Tuberculosis Hospital on 16 September 1927 from tuberculosis. He was buried in a paupers grave in Clonoghill Cemetery, Birr.

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