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John P. Holland

The Liscannor Man who invented the Sub

John P. Holland was born on February 24, 1841, in the coastguard’s residence in Liscannor, Co. Clare. Holland attended St. Macreehy’s National School and probably spent some time in the Christian Brothers School in Ennistymon. His father died in the 1840s and the family moved to Limerick in 1853. Holland joined the Christian Brothers in Limerick and taught in Limerick and many other centres in the country. Due to ill health, he left the Christian Brothers in 1873. While in the Brothers he kept up his interest in scientific experiments. It was appropriate that the young man who had been born in Liscannor should have an obsession with sea travel. He was also interested in flying and while in Cork with the Christian Brothers he drew up designs of an aeroplane. A man of many talents, he was also musically gifted.

He was fortunate that while in Cork he had an excellent science teacher in Brother Dominic Burke, a Limerickman. Brother Burke encouraged him in his designs for a submarine and as early as 1859 he completed his first drafts for a submarine design, a design he never radically changed.

Holland was convinced that naval warfare of the future would be run by the country that used submarines to steal close to the iron-clad battleships and attack at close range. In 1870, Jules Verne published a novel “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” and an excited Holland persisted in turning a dream into reality.

By the time Holland left the Brothers, his mother and his two brothers had emigrated to Boston. He joined them in 1873 and worked for a time with an engineering firm. However, he took up teaching again for a further six years in St. John’s Catholic School in Paterson, New Jersey. When he submitted his design for a submarine to the U.S. Navy, the Navy Secretary rejected it as “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman”. Holland’s brother, Michael, had been introduced to the Fenian Movement who had organised a “skirmishing fund” administered by John Devoy. The physical force nationalism of the Fenians and the determined inventor combined in a project to build a submarine to use against the British Navy.

The idea was to construct a submarine to hold three men. It would be carried aboard a harmless-looking merchant ship which would come close to a British war-ship. The sub would then slip out a door underneath the water, attack the warship and then return to base. The fund allowed six thousand dollars as an initial payment towards development. Holland saw it as a great opportunity to realise his life’s ambition.

His first submarine the Holland No. 1 (see image below), was planned in St. John’s School and it was built in Todd & Raftery’s shop, Paterson, NJ. It saw the light of day in 1877. It was 14 feet long and was powered by a primitive 4 h.p. engine and carried one man. It was brought down to the Passaic River and launched before a big audience. But someone had forgotten to insert the two screw plugs and the sub began to sink underneath the water.

The following day, however, Holland made several successful dives. The Fenians were impressed and voted more money to develop a boat “suitable for war”. Holland removed the useful parts from No. 1 and scuttled her, figuring that it was cheaper to start afresh rather than take her out of the water and put her in storage. Fifty years later, the little sub was salvaged from the Passaic river and, together with Holland’s papers, is now preserved in the Paterson town museum.

With extra funds from the Fenians, Holland was able to give up his teaching job and concentrate on his experiment. Holland was cautious about giving information to newspapers. He seemed to think that every reporter was a British spy in disguise. A reporter from the New York Sun, unable to get information of Holland’s new sub and its Fenian connection, labelled the invention The Fenian Ram.

The Fenian Ram, built at Delamater Iron Works, New York, was launched in May 1881. It was 31 feet long, driven by a 15 h.p. engine, could travel at 9 m.p.h. over water and 7 under water, displaced 19 tons and was armed with an underwater canon fired by compressed air. Although the Fenian Ram had marked an important stage in submarine development, the Fenians were no longer prepared to back Holland who severed all connections with the organisation after that. Indeed, twenty years later he was not slow in selling his designs to the British Navy who launched their own Holland designed sub in October 1901.

After many frustrating efforts with the American Naval authorities Holland won an open competition for a submarine design and in 1896 the John Holland Torpedo Boat Company was set up with Charles A. Morris as Chief Engineer. From the start there were problems due to undue interference from professionals in the Navy Department who regarded Holland as a gifted amateur. They insisted on some radical changes which Holland said could not work. He was proved right in the end as the sub was far too cumbersome, “over-engineered” was Holland’s comment. It was abandoned as useless in 1900.

Holland’s No. 6 was his most successful craft so far. It was 53 feet long and driven by a 45 h.p. gas engine for surface travel and a 45 h.p. gas engine for underwater travel. It carried a crew of fifteen, and had a torpedo tube in the bow. It took its first dive on St. Patrick’s day, 1898, in New York Harbour and was acclaimed a success.

Despite inspections and favourable publicity and indeed the recommendation of the then Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, the Government did not buy the submarine. Holland made some alterations and after a final test in March 1900 the U.S. Government bought the Holland No. 6 on April 12, 1900 for $150,000 - a bargain price, as it had cost twice as much to produce. It was commissioned on October 12, 1900, the first submarine of the American Navy.

As well as selling his designs to the British Navy, Holland built two submarines for Japan which were used against Russian in the war of 1904-5. He received the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan for his contribution to the Japanese Naval victory.

John Philip Holland from Liscannor died on August 12, 1914. He is buried in Totowa, New Jersey, less than one mile from where he launched his first submarine. In 1976 his grave was marked with a large headstone. 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.

Taken from The Phoenix, Clare Champion, Friday August 9, 1996

The 'Holland 1' Submarine

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John Philip Holland (song)


The Liscannor Cottage in which
John P. Holland was born




































John P Holland's headstone,
Totowa, New Jersey.
(Click Image for larger Photograp