The Irishman who designed the UK’s first submarine – on a Fenian budget

Irish Connections: John Philip Holland wasn’t thrilled to have the old enemy as a customer

Father of the submarine: John Philip Holland, walrus moustache and all

Father of the submarine: John Philip Holland, walrus moustache and all

 

A visit to a submarine is fascinating but terrifying. Fascinating because they’re unbelievably tiny inside, terrifying because as you clamber around, stepping into sleeping quarters smaller than most fridges, and trying not to bang your head on the waist-high ceilings, you can’t help but think about the sort of things they got up to (or, perhaps, down to) during the cold war.

At the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, in the town of Gosport on the south coast of England, you can get an extra chill down your spine by visiting the UK’s very first submarine, Holland 1 – which was designed by an Irishman.

John Philip Holland was born by the sea in Liscannor, Co Clare, where his father was a coastguard, in 1841. After leaving school he joined the Christian Brothers and worked as a maths and science teacher in Limerick, Cork, Drogheda and Dundalk. He left the Christian Brothers in 1873 because of ill health, and followed his mother and two brothers to the United States shortly afterwards.

Shortly after his arrival Holland slipped on an icy Boston street and broke his leg. While he was recuperating in hospital he returned to the subject that had always fascinated him: the creation of a boat that could sail beneath the surface of the sea and attack other ships below the waterline. The concept was not new, but a commercial prototype had never been developed.

In 1878 Holland’s first design was launched – only to sink on its maiden voyage, prompting one wit to remark that the professor had built a coffin for himself

In 1875 Holland submitted his designs to the US navy but was turned down. The Fenian Brotherhood spotted the potential of his invention, however, and gave him enough money to allow him to give up his day job and work full time on his submarines. In 1878 his first design was launched – only to sink on its maiden voyage, prompting one wit to remark that “the professor has built a coffin for himself”.

Holland was back in business in 1881 with what became known as the Fenian Ram, a cigar-shaped vessel 10m long by 2m wide, with a 15hp engine. It had a torpedo gun and a toilet but no periscope – indeed, no navigational aid of any kind. It cost $15,000, which alarmed the Fenians so much that they stole it, prompting Holland to offer his expertise to the US navy again instead.

He managed to get funding for a series of subs, each bigger and faster than the last, and capable of diving deeper. In 1900 the navy finally bought his type 6 design, which cost a whopping $150,000, was 20m long and had a 150hp engine. It clearly fitted the bill: the Americans ordered six more, and orders flooded in from navies around the world.

Back in the UK the admiralty was maintaining a stiff-upper-lipped silence about submarines. Secretly, however, it was building some at the Vickers shipyard

Back in the UK the admiralty was maintaining a stiff-upper-lipped silence about submarines. Secretly, however, it was building subs at the Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. The first three, all designed by Holland, were built under licence between 1901 and 1903 – even though their creator was said to be unhappy about his submarines being put into the service of Ireland’s traditional enemy.

As a teacher Holland might be mollified by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum’s website, which explains the extraordinary lengths to which the navy went to conserve Holland 1 – including the building of a gallery with a powerful dehumidification system, to display the vessel. It also describes him as the father of the submarine.

It seems a pity that we know very little about the life of this Irish inventor. One of the few images of him that survives – an amazing shot of Holland popping out of a submarine, walrus moustache and all – just increases the mystery.

Holland died from pneumonia in Newark, New Jersey, at the age of 73. The Fenian Ram is on display at a museum in Paterson, New Jersey; there’s a Holland Street in Liscannor, and a memorial at the school where he taught in Drogheda.

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