Today we celebrate John Philip Holland's incredible life as the Irish engineer who developed the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the U.S. Navy, and the first Royal Navy submarine, Holland 1.
In 1904, two of the most innovative lights of the Age of Invention were reflecting upon the merits of their creations. The younger man, Thomas A Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, numbered the light bulb, the phonograph and the first motion pictures amongst his hundreds of inventions, and was an acclaimed star of the industrialized turn of the century world.
In their correspondence, Edison was let known in no uncertain terms by his older associate and kindred spirit about the profound impact the latter’s showcase invention would have upon humanity.
''Submarines have assuredly come to stay, animated with the desire of helping to end naval warfare'' wrote the Irishman, John Philip Holland, father of the modern submarine.
He genuinely believed that so lethal was his creation that it would serve as a deterrent to war. Ten years later as Holland lay dying in August 1914 the Great War had just begun and within days the lethal potential of the Irishman’s submarine invention finally dawned.
The depths of the ocean have always spawned mass fascination from the time one of Holland’s contemporaries, the novelist Jules Verne, penned Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to the ancient myths. One of the most revolutionary developments in man’s quest for superior weaponry, the submarine’s mystique has always captured the public imagination, with its fascination for the underworld.
Just off the Atlantic coast from where Holland was born in Liscannor, West Clare on February 24, 1841, to a coastguard officer father and a Gaelic-speaking mother, lay the legendary land of Kilstephen, or Cill Stíopháin. There are constant references throughout the ages to this mystical place, which is said to have been submerged at the time of the great 8th-century earthquake.
Ironically, legend has it that once every seven years it rose above the surface of the waves but with it came a terrible curse.
It is written in the Annals of the Four Masters in 799A.D. ‘A great storm of wind, thunder and lightning happened this day before St. Patrick’s festival this year, and it killed ten and one thousand persons in the Territory of Corca Baiscainn, and the Sea divided the island of Inis Fithae into three parts.’
Holland would also have been aware of the religious belief that a monstrous eel burst forth from the depths of Liscannor Bay to feast on the corpses laid to rest at the graveyard, and that the local saint, MacCreehy tackled this great beast and slew it after a long fight.
Holland grew up close to where the Cliffs of Moher begin at Hags Head where the rock assumes the shape of a seated woman, a Sphinx-like head looking eternally westward to the setting sun. He would have learned at the local school of the Spanish Armada ship, the Zuniga, which succeeded in landing and in getting some provisions in Liscannor. Holland knew of the sea’s secrets from the cradle.
John Holland was born at the beginning of a decade of famine in Ireland and a cholera epidemic raged in its wake. When defaulting-tenants were evicted from their cottages, landlords saw to it that the thatch was stripped off the roof to prevent impoverished families coming back. It was a process known as ‘leveling’ and the young Holland would have witnessed such tragedy growing up. To him, it symbolized the tyranny of imperial domination, and it fired him to hit back.
Read more: Top Irish inventions that changed the world
When the English man looked out to sea, he saw the waves which Britannia ruled with its all-conquering navy when the Irish man gazed upon the ocean, he heard beyond the sea of tears, the call of new lands. Holland’s mechanical genius was to be dedicated to altering this state of affairs. His invention was to change the course of modern warfare.
John Philip Holland- Philip was the religious name given him - joined the Order of the Irish Christian Brothers in 1858 and became a teacher. He was sent to the North Monastery in Cork for his first assignment and there he met Brother Dominic Burke a noted science teacher. Burke encouraged Holland’s scientific experiments.
In these formative years, he studied astronomy and worked on the theory of flight which experts said was accurate. Indeed, he later developed this theory in The Practicality of Mechanical Flight, published in 1891, which was hailed by peers as an extraordinary achievement at a time when the Wright brothers were contemplating the opening of a bicycle shop.
While in Cork city he started to experiment with small models of submarine boats and a pond in the school grounds was used to test his designs. He was thinking along the same lines of David Bushnell whose Turtle (a full-size model of which is exhibited at the Royal Navy Submarine in Gosport, Britain) was designed to attack British men-of-war in New York Harbor during the American War of Independence.
In 1862, the American Civil War was receiving worldwide publicity and Holland noted the use of ironclad ships in the battles. He also noted the use of submarine type vessels in the battles, such as the Confederate semi-submersible Hunley, which sank its much stronger Federal for the Housatonic in 1864.
In 1872, Holland’s mother and his brother Alfred immigrated to the United State, and in that same year, he decided not to take his final perpetual vows. Instead in 1873, he departed for Boston in the USA carrying with him submarine designs, which formed the basis of his initial submission in 1875 to the US Naval Department. He soon after began courting his future wife Margaret Foley and they were to later have three sons and a daughter.
In 1874, he had found himself in a teaching post in St. John’s Parochial School in Paterson, New Jersey. It was here that John Philip Holland immersed himself in the working design of the submarine.
This Clare exile was soon to come to prominence in Fenian circles. There was much revolutionary fervor in the Irish American circles that Holland moved in. At a New York fund-raising social for the Catalpa expedition, John’s brother, Michael, who was an activist, introduced him to members of the Clan na Gael leadership, who saw the potential of his designs in a covert naval war against Britain’s powerful fleet.
The US Naval Department had already rejected his submarine plans as impractical, “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman”.
The Irish World newspaper launched an appeal fund. The successful testing of Holland’s 33-inch model submarine at Coney Island, New York, convinced the Fenian leadership to sponsor Holland’s $4,000 construction of a full-sized ‘wrecking boat’ from its ‘Skirmishing Fund’. The success of this 14-foot model led to the $20,000 funding by the Fenians on a second venture by Holland in 1881. This craft, over twice as large as its predecessor and dubbed the ‘Fenian Ram’ by a New York Sun reporter, was also successful.
While Holland was engaged on a third prototype project, an internal rift developed amongst the Fenians, some of whom were growing impatient about slow progress on the diving boat. One group decided to take the ‘Ram’ into their own hands. One source suggested that this was primarily to avoid legal sequestration while their monies were in dispute.
Led by John Breslin, with forged papers, they towed away the Fenian Ram and Boat No. 3 up the East River into Long Island Sound. Just off Whitestone Point, the prototype was sunk, while the Fenian Ram was taken to Mill River in New Haven where it remained in a shed until the 1916 Rising, where it was displayed at Madison Square Gardens to raise money for dependents of the Rising in Dublin. The Fenian Ram is today on display at Paterson Museum, New Jersey.
Holland was furious, declaring "I’ll let her rot on their hands," and thus ended the great "Salt Water Enterprise."
Holland went on to eventually sell the designs to his Holland VI model, which used a gasoline engine on the surface and electric motors under water as propelling machinery to the US and Japanese navies and ironically to the very power he had originally intended to employ the submarine against, the Royal Navy, although, due to the deception of erstwhile litigious colleagues, Holland never bore the full financial fruits of his labor. He was, however, honored with the Fourth-Class Order of Merit Rising Sun Ribbon by the Japanese Ambassador for his distinguished service to the Japanese nation.
The New York Times, following Holland’s death in 1914 reported that “although he was interested in submarines, Mr. Holland was opposed to war, and his idea of submarines was to incapacitate warships and not to destroy them and kill the men on them”. This was, after all, a man, who in his 1907 Sketches and Calculations, planned a 40-passenger submarine “for amusement at seaside resorts”, with large circular ports for viewing the underwater world. He also explored the peacetime uses of the submarine and discussed its potential role in scientific research. Within 40days of John Philip Holland’s death, however, the lethal potency of Holland’s creation was to unveil itself. One single submarine in one day alone turned a small area of the North Sea off the Dutch coast into a struggling mass of humanity when it claimed over 1400 lives in the sinking of three British light cruisers.
Although the Holland VI was formally commissioned into the United States Navy on 12 October 1900, the date it was officially bought, 11 April 1900, is celebrated by the US Navy as the submarine birthday. Another day when Holland is now perpetually commemorated is 1 May. It was on this date in 2006 that John Philip Holland Day was declared in Paterson New Jersey. The day is now established in tribute to the Liscannor born inventor of the ‘Modern Day Submarine’ John P. Holland.
The great Doolin musician, Micho Russell sang of Holland:
Come all you young Irishmen who walk upon the land,
There are feats indeed, and fairy creeds, that you might understand:
There is one of them that comes to mind, the likes were never seen,
He was John Philip Holland who invented the submarine.
* Originally published in 2013.