The Otway harp

3D image of the inscription. Red / cyan goggles required for viewing. This image shows how abraded and worm-eaten the inscription is.

There is an inscription on the Otway harp, carved on the inside of the forepillar towards the base:
I I i I O C O R M I C K O K E L L Y 1 7 0 7 O

I don’t understand the significance of the incised lines and circles before and after the name and date. I wonder if they are some kind of ogham or other symbol.

The inscription is very hard to read because of wear and woodworm damage, and there has been discussion about it for a long time.

In the 19th century, Petrie saw the harp and reported that “it bears the date 1707”. R.B. Armstrong has caused a lot of confusion because he couldn't read the main inscription, only the deeply incised lines at the beginning; he interpreted them as a date, and got confused by the wormholes. (the little picture shows Armstrong’s sketch).

I first saw the harp in 2003, and every year since then, students and staff of Scoil na gCláirseach have viewed the Otway harp in Trinity College every August for half an hour, and the inscription is always a topic of lively discussion. In 2010 I made a sketch of the incised lines that I could see, and tentatively read the name Cormac O Kelly. Photography has been permitted since 2012, and I have photographed the inscription each year and finally managed to read all of the letters in 2014.

Mike Billinge has also been working on the inscription, and his report on his visit to Trinity College in May 2014 includes his notes on the reading of the inscription.

R.B. Armstrong was not impressed by the inscription and did not think it good enough to be the makers signature, but I was struck by the similarity with the strokes and letter forms, to the inscription on the soundbox of the Downhill harp, made by Cormac O’Kelly in 1702. There is also the newly-discovered watercolour of the Magenis harp, which shows an inscription “Cormick O Kelly”, with the same distinctive spelling as on the Otway harp.

Simon Chadwick