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

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Visiting a submarine is fascinating but terrifying. Fascinating because they’re insanely small inside, terrifying because when you climb up, enter dorms that are smaller than most fridges and try not to bang your head against waist-deep ceilings you can’t help but think about the kinds of things they did (or, maybe, did) during the cold war.

At Royal Navy Submarine Museum, in the town of Gosport on the south coast of England, you can cool off your back 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 Coast Guard, in 1841. After leaving school he joined the Christian Brothers and worked as a math and science teacher in Limerick, Cork, Drogheda and Dundalk. He left the Christian Brothers in 1873 due to health problems and followed his mother and two brothers to the United States soon after.

Shortly after arriving, Holland slipped down an icy Boston street and broke his leg. During his recovery in the hospital, he returns to the subject that has always fascinated him: the creation of a boat capable of sailing below the surface of the sea and attacking other ships below the waterline. The concept was not new, but a commercial prototype had never been developed.

In 1878 Holland’s first model was launched – only to sink on its maiden voyage, prompting a spirit to notice the professor building a coffin for himself.

In 1875 Holland submitted his plans to the US Navy but was refused. The Fenian Brotherhood, however, spotted the potential of his invention and gave him enough money to allow him to give up his daily job and work full-time on his submarines. In 1878, its first design was launched – only to sink on its maiden voyage, prompting a mind to notice that “the professor has built himself a coffin.”

Holland resumed operations in 1881 with what became the Fenian Ram, a cigar-shaped vessel 10m long by 2m wide with a 15hp engine. It had a torpedo launcher and a toilet, but no periscope – in fact, no navigation aid of any kind. It cost $ 15,000, which alarmed the Fenians so much that they stole it, prompting Holland to again offer his expertise to the US Navy.

He managed to secure funds for a series of submarines, each larger and faster than the last, and capable of diving deeper. In 1900, the Navy finally purchased its Type 6 model, which cost $ 150,000, was 20m in length, and had a 150 hp engine. It clearly did the trick: the Americans ordered six more, and orders were pouring in from navies around the world.

Back in the UK, the Admiralty maintained a rigid silence on the submarines. Secretly, however, he was building some at the Vickers Shipyard.

Back in the UK, the Admiralty kept a rigid silence on the submarines. Secretly, however, he was building submarines at the Vickers Shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. The first three, all designed by Holland, were built under license between 1901 and 1903 – although their creator would have been unhappy with the commissioning of his submarines by Ireland’s traditional enemy.

As a teacher, Holland might be appeased by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum website, which explains the extraordinary efforts the Navy has made to conserve Holland 1 – including the construction of a gallery with a powerful dehumidification system, to expose the tank. He also describes him as the father of the submarine.

It seems a shame that we know very little about the life of this Irish inventor. One of the few images of him that survives – an incredible photo of Holland coming out of a submarine, walrus mustache and all – only adds to the mystery.

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


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