The next time a Royal Navy submarine engages in one of the force’s favourite pastimes, namely ‘snag an Irish trawler’, its crew might pause to reflect on the fact that the man who invented their vessel was brought up speaking Irish, and was once a Christian Brother.
John Philip Holland didn’t start to learn English until he went to national school in Liscannor, Co. Clare, just as the Famine was beginning to take hold in the west of Ireland.
His father, an employee of the British Coastguard Service, would probably not have approved of the first intended use of his new invention—it was built at the behest of the Fenians to blow up British shipping.
Holland was born in 1841 and left Ireland in 1873, after a stint as a schoolteacher in a variety of locations, including the North Monastery in Cork. It seems that he had already been working on his invention before he left Ireland. He settled down in Paterson, New Jersey and started to develop a patent, which he first offered to the US Navy in 1875. They rejected it as ‘a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman’.
Holland’s brother, who lived in Boston, happened to be a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and it was through his sibling that Holland met John Devoy and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Devoy was impressed by Holland’s nationalism, and by the potential for havoc of his invention. Money was appropriated from O’Donovan Rossa’s infamous ‘Skirmishing Fund’—collected from Irish-American nationalists for use in freeing the ‘old sod’—and Holland was engaged to build a prototype.
Holland was enabled by the Fenians to give up his teaching job, and work on the project full time. He used Rossa’s fund to develop his first model in 1878, the Holland 1, a one-man, fourteen-foot craft, with a two-cylinder engine.
By 1881 he had refined his original design, and produced a three-man vessel, thirty-one feet long, which became known as The Fenian Ram, but which could not sustain extended periods of use underwater.
While he was working for the Fenians, Holland could never seem to get it absolutely right. If he designed a submarine that could remain underwater for long periods, it would develop engine trouble. He also got into difficulties with port authorities in New York and New Haven, who considered him, quite literally, a danger to shipping. After an investment of sixty thousand dollars, with little or nothing to show for it, other than three interesting models, the Clan and Holland parted company. Fortunately Clan na Gael had no Comptroller and Auditor General among their ranks to issue a negative report about the waste of good Skirmishing Fund money, funds that might have been better used in the dynamite campaign then going on in London.
Holland continued to experiment. He developed a fourth prototype, which didn’t seem to excite anybody too much either, until he attracted the attention of a wealthy lawyer, J.B.Frost, who staked him until he got it right. He hit pay dirt with ‘Model No. 6’. It was fifty-three feet long, had a six-man crew, could dive to sixty feet, and stay under for nearly two days. It was also armed with torpedoes. The US Navy gave him one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for it, named it the USS Holland, and asked for six more please. Oh, yes—then they really annoyed the inventor by selling the plans to the British Navy.
Holland died in 1914, barely a week after the beginning of the global war that was to see his invention kill thousands of people, including women and children, on board commercial vessels like the Lusitania.
John Philip Holland, Clare man, ex-Christian Brother, native Irish speaker, and inventor of one of the most lethal weapons in military history, was born one hundred and seventy-six years ago, on this day.
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