Illuminations: John Philip Holland and The Fenian Ram
By: J. Michael Finn
“Some men for adventure have planned for the stars
And others had hoped to see Venus or Mars
But you worked and you labored to build your wild dream
That you’d be the man with the first submarine”
Irish-born engineer John Philip Holland’s contribution to American history changed the course of naval warfare forever. Holland, the second of four brothers, was born on February 25, 1841 in Liscanor, County Clare, Ireland, where his father, John Sr., was a member of the Royal Coastguard Service.
His mother, Mary Scanlan, taught him to speak Irish before English. He attended the local grade school and later the Christian Brothers School in Ennistymon.
In 1858 he became an instructor in mathematics at the Christian Brothers School in Ennistymon, where he was educated, but his health was not good and he transferred to a school in Waterford in hopes it would improve. Later he transferred to a school in Cork.
Holland was obsessed with sea travel. His father being in the coastguard gave his son a love for the sea and all things connected with it. In 1863, during the U.S. Civil War, a naval battle occurred between two ironclad vessels, Monitor and the Merrimac. Holland thought of the possible means of overcoming ironclad ships, and the idea of a submarine first came to him. In 1863 he drew his first design of an underwater boat.
The First Submarine
In 1873, Holland decided to leave the Christian Brothers School. His mother and two brothers had recently immigrated to the U.S., settling in Boston, and he decided to join them. After his arrival in the U.S., Holland slipped and fell on the ice and broke his leg. While recuperating, he used his time to refine his submarine designs.
In 1875, he submitted his design for consideration by the US Navy, but they were turned it down as unworkable. The Secretary of the Navy called Holland’s design, “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman.”
For a time Holland worked at an engineering firm in Boston. He then moved to New Jersey, where he again took up teaching at St. John’s Catholic School in Paterson, New Jersey.
The Fenian Brotherhood
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Patrick Ford, members of the Fenian Brotherhood, publicized details of a “Skirmishing Fund” in The Irish World Newspaper in 1876. The fund was set up to finance the continuing war by the Fenians in the US against the British Empire.
Holland’s brother Michael, also a member of the Fenians, introduced him to Rossa that same year. On July 6, 1876, Holland met with John J. Breslin and John Devoy. Breslin was one of the trustees of the Skirmishing Fund and was assigned to investigate John Holland’s proposal to build a submarine for the Brotherhood.
If the project proved successful, the Fenians hoped to use the vessel to attach British war ships. The Skirmishing Fund’s administrators allowed $6,000 as an initial payment toward the boat’s development.
Holland’s first submarine, the Holland No. 1, was planned in St. John’s School and was built in Paterson, New Jersey. It saw the light of day in 1877. It was fourteen feet long and carried one man. It was launched in the Passaic River before a large audience. But someone forgot to insert the two vital plugs and the submarine promptly sank. The following day, however, Holland made several successful dives with the boat.
The Fenians were impressed and voted more money to develop a boat “suitable for war.” With the extra funds, Holland was able to give up his teaching job and concentrate on his work for the Fenians. Holland was always cautious about giving project information to newspapers (he seemed to think that every reporter was a British spy). A reporter from the New York Sun, unable to get information of Holland’s new sub and its Fenian connection, labeled his project The Fenian Ram.
The Fenian Ram
The Fenian Ram, (actually, Holland No. 2) was built at DeLamater Iron Works, New York, and was launched in May 1881. It was thirty-one feet long, carried a crew of three and was armed with an underwater canon fired by compressed air. Soon after the boat was successfully launched, the Fenians backed out and severed all connections with the project.
The disagreement was all about money. Holland set the Fenian Ram project aside and concentrated on selling the US Navy on his invention.
After many frustrating efforts with Naval authorities, Holland won an open competition for a submarine design, and in 1896, the John Holland Electric Boat Company was established. From the start there were problems due to undue interference from the Navy Department.
The Navy insisted on some radical changes which Holland said would not work. He was proven right in the end and it was abandoned as useless in 1900.
The Holland No. 6 was Holland’s most successful craft. It was fifty-three feet long, carried a crew of six, had a maximum diving depth of seventy-five feet and had a torpedo tube in the bow. It took its first dive on May 17, 1897, in New York Harbor, and was acclaimed a success.
This was the first submarine having power to run submerged for any considerable distance, and the first to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface. It was purchased by the US Navy, on April 11, 1900, after rigorous tests, and was commissioned on October 12, 1900, as the USS Holland.
John Philip Holland died on August 12, 1914. He is buried in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery East Orange, New Jersey. In 1976 his grave was marked with a large headstone. Castle Street in Liscannor, Ireland was renamed Holland Street in his honor.
The Fenian Ram never saw combat. In 1916, it was exhibited in Madison Square Garden to raise funds for victims of the Easter Rising. Following that it became an exhibit on the campus of Clason Point Military Academy, Bronx, New York.
On May 27, 1927, the Academy sold it to a junk dealer for $100. Hearing of the sale, a Clan na Gael member named Harry Cunningham purchased the Fenian Ram from the junkyard on June 25, 1927, for $650.
On September 9, 1927, Cunningham sold the Fenian Ram to Edward Browne, an automobile dealer from Paterson, New Jersey. Browne donated the boat to the Paterson city parks commission as a memorial to John Holland, who made so many engineering achievements in the city. The submarine was displayed outdoors in a Paterson city park until it was acquired by the Patterson Museum. Today, the Fenian Ram is on display indoors at the Patterson Museum, along with the smaller Holland No. 1 submarine. The museum also houses an archive of Holland’s life and work.
In an unusual sidelight to the story, the first Submarine Sandwich was invented by Dominic Conti (1874-1954) an Italian immigrant who came to America in 1895. In 1910, he started an Italian grocery store in Paterson, New Jersey where he sold traditional Italian sandwiches. As his sandwiches were made on long loaves of Italian Bread, Conti named his sandwiches Submarine Sandwiches. Conte claimed he was inspired to name his sandwiches Submarines after seeing the Fenian Ram exhibition at the Paterson Museum. Now you know.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FC*******@ao*.com.