Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date






In June 2015, the Irish Maritime Festival in Drogheda hosted the launch onto the River Boyne of a large-scale replica of “The Fenian Ram”, a fully operational submarine. The original vessel was built in 1881 by County Clare engineer John Philip Holland, who went on to design the first submarines for the US Navy. Holland is now acknowledged as the Father of the Modern Submarine.

John Philip Holland, the second of four boys, was born on February 24, 1841, in a humble cottage – still standing today – in the village of Liscannor near the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. His father, John Holland, Sr., worked with the British Coastguard Service while his mother Máire Ní Scannláin (aka Mary Scanlon), was a native Irish speaker from Liscannor.[i]

Raised as an Irish speaker, he did not learn English until he attended St. Macreehy’s National School. He later studied with the Christian Brothers School in Ennistymon and Limerick, before joining the order as a teacher in 1858. He subsequently taught maths and music at their centres in Cork, Drogheda and Dundalk.

During his time in Cork, he read an account of the Battle of Ironclads, an inconclusive American Civil War duel fought in Virginia between two competing ironclad battleships. It occurred to Holland that the future of naval warfare was likely to be determined by submarine vessels that could travel covertly and surprise attack such mighty battleships.

Encouraged by Brother Dominic Burke, a science teacher in Cork, he developed his interest in science and aerodynamics and, as well as designing an airplane, he completed the first fledgling drafts of his submarine design. His passions were further ignited when Jules Verne published a novel “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” in 1870.

In 1873, the 32-year-old left the Christian Brothers due to ill health and moved to Boston where his widowed mother and his two surviving brothers had emigrated three years earlier.

After a period working with an engineering firm, he returned to teaching and spent six years in St. John’s Catholic School in the manufacturing stronghold of Paterson, New Jersey.

During a visit to Boston, Holland slipped on an icy street and broke a leg. While he recuperated, he worked on his submarine design, assisted by an Irish priest called Isaac Whelan.

In 1875, he submitted his designs to the U.S. Navy Department in Washington for a one-man submarine powered by foot pedals. It was rejected as “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman.”[iii]

Holland’s brother Michael was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood (later Clan na Gael), an Irish-American organisation committed to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. Having observed Holland’s prototype at work on Coney Island in 1877, the Fenians offered to pay him a development fee of £6000 from their “Skirmishing Fund”, a bursary on offer to anyone with a sound plan for attacking British interests in the US.

Sympathetic to the cause, the determined inventor conceived a submarine, capable of carrying three men, which was to be carried into the vicinity of a British battleship by an innocuous merchant vessel. It was then to slip into the water and attack the battleship at close range.

Backed by the Fenians, Holland eagerly set to work. In 1878 he launched the Holland No. 1 in the Passaic River at Paterson. Planned and completed in Paterson, the submarine was 14 feet long, driven by a primitive 4 horsepower engine and carried a solitary man, namely Holland himself. After a few false starts, the Clare man made a series of successful dives, at one time spending an hour underwater on the riverbed. The Fenians were impressed and agreed to provide more money to develop a boat “suitable for war”.

Having now given up his teaching job, Holland started anew, basing himself at the Delamater Iron Works, Manhattan, New York. The press were fascinated but Holland was cagey, suspecting most reporters of being British spies in disguise. A journalist for The New York Sun got to the nub of the project when he dubbed the vessel ‘The Fenian Ram’.

The name stuck. In May 1881, Holland launched his 31 foot long submersible Fenian Ram in the Hudson River. Powered by a 17 h.p. engine, the vessel could travel at 9 m.p.h. over water and 7 under water. She was also armed with an underwater ‘dynamite gun’, fired by compressed air.

While the launch was a success, Holland was to spend the next two years tinkering and improving the craft.

Unfortunately the situation with his Fenian sponsors was not so positive. A row ensued over the payment due to Holland, resulting in a lawsuit and a bitter split in the often-fractious organisation. The Fenians withdrew their funding and then some disgruntled members stole Holland’s prototype submarine, towing it through Long Island Sound to Newhaven, Connecticut, where it was abandoned by the pier for many years. [iv]

A furious Holland severed his ties with the Fenians although he maintained his interest in Irish nationalism. In 1901, for instance, he was a guest speaker at a banquet given in New York to honour Major John MacBride, commander of the Irish Brigade fighting in support of the Boers against Britain in South Africa.[v]

Lean years followed with the US Naval authorities consistently overlooking Holland’s invention and writing him off as an eccentric dreamer. In January 1887 he married Margaret Foley with whom he settled in Newark, while continuing his work in submarine design.

Later that year, he had a possible breakthrough when he won an open competition for a submarine design run by the US Navy Department. Although he won, the department was not willing to invest in the project.

Desperately short of money and having lost his first child in infancy, Holland took a low-paying job as a draftsman to support his wife and, in due course, four children. He continued to research submarines, as well as manned flight, and in 1893 he set up the John Holland Torpedo Boat Company.

Although he won a $150,00 contract to build a submarine, he was plagued by personal illness as well as experts from the Navy Department who insisted on major changes to his design. The resultant submarine was a flop which, to quote Holland, had been ‘over-engineered’.

Meanwhile, Holland also began work on what was to be his most successful submarine. Based on the Fenian Ram, the 53 feet long Holland VI took its first dive in New York Harbour on St. Patrick’s Day, 1898. Carrying a crew of fifteen with a torpedo tube in the bow, the Holland VI was the first submarine to travel a considerable distance while submerged. It was also the first to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for surface travel.

It caught the eye of Theodore Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who recommended immediate purchase to boost the US war effort in their war with Spain. However, the US government dithered obliging an irritated Holland to state publicly that if the US Navy would transport his boat to the Caribbean, he would demonstrate the effectiveness of his submarine by single-handedly sinking the entire Spanish fleet holed up in Santiago de Cuba. He quickly received 500 applications from electricians, engineers and sailors willing to join him.[vi]

Still the US Navy stalled, observing that when the boat was submerged it ‘yawed like a drunken washerwoman’.[vii] More trials were required but in 1899, the cash-strapped Holland was obliged to sell his firm to the German-born businessman Isaac Rice who renamed it the Electric Boat Company, retaining Holland as general manager. Following a demonstration on the Potomac River in Washington in March 1900, Rice persuaded the US Navy to buy the submarine for $150,000 – nearly half of what she had cost to build. Commissioned on October 12, 1900, the Holland VI duly became the US Navy’s first submarine. A further seven of these submarines were then built at shipyards in New Jersey and California.

The Electric Boat Company also sold the designs to Britain's Royal Navy – the original intended target of the Fenian Ram – who launched their own Holland-designed sub in October 1901. The Royal Netherlands Navy also bought the submarine.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Rice’s company managed to sell submarines to the navies of both sides. When Japan prevailed, the Emperor apparently awarded Holland the Rising Sun for his contribution to the victory.

Medals were all very well but Holland’s financial reward was far less satisfactory. Rice had demoted the Irishman to chief engineer on a salary of $90 a week while the submarines he invented were now selling for as much as $300,000 each. As Rice later put it, his company needed ‘a naval constructor, not an inventor,’ and most of Holland’s proposed ‘improvements’ were now rejected.

Frustrated by the diminishment of his technical authority, Holland resigned in 1904 and set up a rival company to build submarines and flying machines.[viii] Addressing the La Salle Society in Newark in December 1906, he told how his new submarines were designed ‘not to destroy, but to cripple and disable’ all that it attacks, without, he hoped, ‘a single loss of life.’ He concluded: ‘I believe the new boat will startle the world.’[ix]

However, Holland’s attempts to secure sufficient funding were doomed when Rice’s legal team sought to not only block his usage of the patent for overseas clients but also to stop him using his own ‘Holland’ name on any of marketing. The company folded in 1907, its greatest success having been to sell a design to the Imperial Japanese Navy upon which two submarines were built in Kobe. In 1908 he supported an investigation into Electric Boat’s scurrilous monopoly on submarine construction.

With the outbreak of the war in Europe on 28 July 1914, Holland was anticipating the first real test of his submarines, given that practically every navy in the world had one by then. However, riddled with rheumatism and paralysis, the 72-year-old was struck with pneumonia and drifted into unconsciousness at his home in Newton Street, Newark, on August 10, 1914. He died two days later, with his wife, three sons and a daughter at his bedside.[x] He is buried in Totowa, New Jersey, less than one mile from where he launched his first submarine.

Six weeks after his death, a German submarine sank three British cruisers in the North Sea with the loss of 1,459 lives. During the course of the war, the Electric Boat Company and its subsidiaries built 85 Navy submarines and 722 submarine chasers for the US Navy, along with 580 motor launches for the British Royal Navy. It later evolved into General Dynamics Corporation, now the world's fifth-largest defense contractor.

In 1964 a plaque was erected in Liscannor commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Castle Street in Liscannor has been renamed Holland Street in his honour.

With manifold thanks to Maria O’Brien.


‘John Holland - The Father of the Modern Submarine,’ by Edward C. Whitman, via http://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_19/holland.htm

John P. Holland (1841-1914) - The Liscannor Man who invented the Sub, The Phoenix, Clare Champion, Friday August 9, 1996, via http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/people/holland.htm


[i] Máire was John Holland's second wife, his first, Anne Foley Holland, believed to be a native of Kilkee, died in 1835. It is sometimes said the original family name was Houlihan. Apparently members of the Houlihan family often changed their name to Holland on moving to England or the US. ‘Holland Submarine Saved’, New York Sun, 20 August 1916.

[iii] The Catholic Digest, Volume 11, College of St. Thomas, 1947, p. 68, via https://books.google.ie/books?id=NqUUAAAAIAAJ&q=“a+fantastic+scheme+of+a+civilian+landsman”.&dq=“a+fantastic+scheme+of+a+civilian+landsman”.&hl=en&sa=X&ei=JE2WVfyHCIKS7Abmja_QAg&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAQ

[iv] ‘Holland Submarine Saved’, New York Sun, 20 August 1916.

[v] ‘Dinner to Major MacBride’, Western People, Sat 12 Jan 1901. The MacBride dinner took place in Sturtevant House, 28th Street and Broadway, New York.

[vi] ‘The Holland Submarine Boat’, Irish Examiner, Fri 17 June 1898.

[vii] ‘The Birth of a Submarine’, Edwardsville Intelligencer, 22 Oct 1965. See also http://www.americanheritage.com/content/father-modern-submarine?page=6

[viii] An article on Holland’s flying machines appeared in the Irish Independent on 6 January 1906.

[ix] La Salle Society dinner report from Irish World quoted in Meath Chronicle-Sat 5 Jan 1907.

[x] Boston Post, 13 August 1913.