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John P Holland: Submarine Man

John P Holland, the Irish inventor of the modern Submarine. This picture was taken around 1912.

Despite facing what sometimes seemed like insurmountable obstacles, the Irish engineer John P Holland refused to give up on his vision of building a submarine and eventually perfected a design that was adopted by a number of leading powers, including the Holland 1 that was purchased by the Royal Navy in the UK.

Throughout his life, the sea and his love of it pervaded Holland’s every waking moment. He was born in 1840 into the seaside community of Liscannornin, on Ireland’s dramatic Atlantic coast, where his father worked as a coastguard, It was therefore perhaps not surprising that he would go on to dedicate much of his life to bringing his dream of a submarine to reality. The eventual design and launch of both the Fenian Ram and, more famously, the Holland 1 were proud moments indeed in Irish history.

Holland standing in the hatch of one of his submarines - The Irish Place
Holland standing in the hatch of one of his submarines.

John initially went to St. Macreehy’s National School, moving in due course to the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon. During the terrible hardships of the Great Famine, reality hit as one of his younger brothers and two beloved uncles sadly died.

In 1852, his father decided to retire from his position as a coastguard and relocate the family to Limerick. John therefore enrolled at the Christian Brothers in that town. When his father died not long after the move, he started to work a teacher in several of the Christian Brothers’ schools in order to keep the family afloat financially. He went on to take on the official vows of a Christian Brother and was known henceforth as Brother Philip.

In November 1858, Brother Philip was given a position at Cork’s North Monastery School, where he was introduced to a fellow Brother from Limerick, Brother James Dominic Burke, who was a renowned teacher of science and a leading proponent of vocational training.

Engine area of the Holland 1 (note the carbon monoxide ‘detector’ – the cage containing mice in the engine area)

Burke was one of Holland’s most ardent supporters and fully encouraged him to complete his first proposals, which would later form the design outline of the vessels purchased by both the US and UK navies.

When poor health led to him leaving the Christian Brothers in 1873, he decided to follow his mother and two of his brothers to America. He booked himself a passage (in steerage) and set sail to meet them where they had settled in the city of Boston. On arrival, he took a position with a firm that specialised in engineering. After a time, he reverted to teaching, taking a job with another Catholic educational establishment – St John’s Parochial School in New Jersey – that also fell under the remit of the Christian Brothers. Fate intervened when he fell and broke his leg, necessitating a long hospital stay. It was during this period of enforced rest that he refined his plans, giving him the confidence that he really would be able to build a fully working submersible craft that would become commercially successful.

The funding that he so desperately needed to carry on developing and honing his designs came via his brother Michael, who had built a relationship with the Fenian Movement in the US. Together, the Fenians and Holland decided to pool their resources and work on producing a workable submersible craft together, which indeed they did. However, the partnership ultimately broke down over a row about finances.

For the next twenty years, Holland joined forces with a diverse range of corporate supporters in order to refine his prototypes and attempt to achieve a level of fame and success that at times had seemed almost out of reach due to the many bureaucratic and monetary hurdles that he had to overcome.

Perhaps fittingly, it was on St. Patrick’s Day in 1898 that Holland first triumphantly trialled his prototype, taking it through the full range of surfacing and diving manoeuvres just off the coast of Staten Island.

A view of the Holland 1 in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport from the Stern.

A demonstration was scheduled for ten days later to showcase the design, and it prompted no less a figure than Theodore Roosevelt (who was then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy) to advise the US Navy to purchase one of Holland’s submarines. Despite this important recommendation, a further two long years elapsed before the US Navy signed on the dotted line.

Finally, on April 11, 1900, the navy finally committed to the purchase of a Holland craft at the cost of $150,000, which although a seemingly princely sum was actually only half of the cost of the design itself. To Holland’s great relief, the navy subsequently placed orders for seven additional craft.

Other nations, including the UK, which went on to purchase the Holland 1, and Japan were also intrigued by Holland’s revolutionary design and adopted it to help them develop their next generation of submarines. He received the prestigious Rising Sun Medal from the Emperor of Japan, and monuments were erected in his memory in both the US and Japan.

The Torpedo Tube on the Holland 1

The 53-foot-long submarine combined most of the key design ideas that Holland had identified two decades earlier and became the blueprint for most subsequent submersible craft, including the Fenian Ram and the Holland 1, right up to the present day.

After spending the majority of his life perfecting his submarine designs, including the Fenian Ram and the Holland 1, John P Holland died in Newark on the 12th of August, 1914. He is buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in New Jersey. He is revered to this day as a true innovator and a credit to his native Ireland.


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