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This is an invention you would never think would come from Ireland, considering how cold the water is here and how people just really don’t want to get in it.


John Philip Holland (1840 – 1914), an Irish engineer, invented a way to go underwater without getting wet. Yep this dude invented the submarine. It is hard to know what possessed Holland so fervently to develop his idea of a submarine. But he seemed to be so caught up with the idea of sneaking up on British ships and blasting the bejapers out of them – for his whole life.  He saw the development of a submarine as the only way of winning any war against the British from underdog position. So convinced was he that his submarine idea would work, that he dedicated his whole life to achieving the goal of making it a success. And in the end, he did just that, but it was one long and hard slog with true results only seen in his last days.


John P. Holland was born on February 24, 1841, in Co Clare, but moved to Limerick in 1853 when his father died. He was a native Irish speaker, and indeed did not learn any English until he started school. He went through the Christian Brother school system well, and came out the end of it as a teacher for the Christian Brothers, based in Limerick. It was in the school system that he met Brother Dominic Burke, a science teacher and fellow Limerickman. Brother Burke encouraged him in his designs for a submarine wholeheartedly and was his first and biggest fan. In 1859, at the age of 19 Holland had polished up his first drafts for a submarine, a design he never radically changed.

Eventually, Holland’s mother and brothers emigrated to Boston. He joined them in 1873 and got a job working with an engineering firm. However he eventually found his way back to the Christian Brothers, by accepting a teaching position in St. John’s Catholic School in Paterson, New Jersey.

All throughout his time teaching, he was perfecting his submarine design. He finally submitted his plan for an underwater ship to the US Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy Secretary spurned it, saying that it was “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman.” Holland’s brother, frustrated by this response, decided to take matters into his own hands. He contacted the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret oath-bound fraternal organisation dedicated to the establishment of an independent democratic republic in Ireland. Its counterpart in the United States of America was known as the Fenian Brotherhood.

The Fenians saw the value of the submarine as a war tool against the might of British ships, and allocated Holland a skirmishing fund. Together they agreed to make a deadly submarine that would hopefully become a big problem to the British navy. The plan was that the submarine would hold three men, and would be carried on a harmless-looking commercial ship. The civilian ship would then casually approach the British warship. However the civilian ship would have a secret compartment in it, with a door where the submarine could then slip out into the sea, underwater and approach the warship unseen. It would attack the warship, and return to base without ever surfacing. The Fenians were excited, and funded Holland to the tune of six thousand dollars as an initial payment towards the development. Holland saw it as the perfect route to realising his life’s ambition, and got cracking.

His first working submarine (called Holland No. 1) was designed in St John’s School. I’m pretty sure the Christian Brothers would not have been impressed with this use of their educational centre. But you can’t stop progress, especially when it is in the name of war, apparently.

With his designs in his hand, Holland found a place that would manufacture the vessel for him: Todd & Raftery’s shop, Paterson, NJ. Finally it was finished and brought out into the sunlight in 1877, when Holland was 37. It was 14 feet long and powered by a now-laughable 4 horsepower engine. It only had enough power to carry one bloke, so it wasn’t the 3-man war machine that was originally planned. Holland lugged it down to the Passaic River and launched before a big audience. Alas: someone had forgotten to put in two plugs and the submarine went straight to the bottom of the river on its maiden voyage.


This picture is the actual shot from when Holland tested out his first submarine in the river.

Not deterred, Holland resurrected it and made several dives in the river. The Fenians who saw it were delighted, and quickly allocated more money towards its development into a fully-fledged war vessel. Holland removed the reusable parts of his first working submarine, and deliberately sunk her to the bottom of the river, as he guessed that it was less hassle than finding somewhere to store it. Fifty years later, when people realized that the little vessel was down there, it was pulled from the river and promptly sent to the local museum.

With more money flowing in from the Fenians, Holland gave up his teaching post and threw himself into producing the next generation of his submarine. He also at this point recognised his debt to the Fenians: he was developing a weapon of war to fight the might of the British Navy. Things had to be top secret from now on. He was cautious with newspaper reporters: he was suspicious that they were all really just spies.

The next generation of sub was dubbed the Fenian Ram. This time it was built at an Iron works in New York, and launched in May 1881. It was 31 feet long, and powered by a 15 horsepower engine, which was a much more credible proposition. It could go at 9 mph on the surface of the water, and at 7 mph underneath the water. By this stage, however, the Fenians were becoming disillusioned and bored by the submarine proposition. They withdrew funding, much to Holland’s frustration. It took Holland twenty years to decide that his invention was more important than his loyalty to the Fenians. He sold his design to the British Navy who were quick to launch their own sub, using Holland’s blueprints in 1901.

Holland’s 6th generation submarine was his greatest work. It was 53 feet long, and could travel at much faster speeds both under and above water.  It could carry 15 men, and it meant business: it had a torpedo tube in the bow. It took its first dive on St. Patrick’s Day, 1898, in New York Harbour. It was deemed a great achievement.

And still, frustratingly, the US Navy would not buy the submarine. Holland, consumed by frustration, made some final alterations to make it more appealing. Finally, in 1900, the U.S. Government bought the Holland No. 6 for $150,000. It was some bargain, considering that it had cost Holland more than twice that to make it.

But finally, FINALLY the Irish lad from Limerick was the official designer of the first submarine of the American Navy. He realised his dream at age 60. The Navy went on to build more of the submarines in a shipyard in New Jersey. And of course they have evolved into what the navy uses now – the mind-bogglingly high-tech nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.


And this is what submarines look like today. It was a mind-boggling invention in its day.


It wasn’t just the British and American Navy that benefited from Holland’s designs. Holland also designed two submarines for Japan. Japan subsequently used them to pulverize Russia in the war of 1904-5. Holland received the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan for his contribution to the Japanese Naval victory.

The Irish lad from Limerick died in 1914, just before his submarines went into mad levels of production before the First World War. He was buried less than a mile from where he tried out his first sinking submarine. He should be known as the greatest Irish inventor of all time. But he has slipped into obscurity. After all, he did invent a weapon of war. And after all is said and done, if it had have been for underwater cruising and reef watching, he would have achieved a different level of fame. It is shame that the most brilliant minds find their way to inventing instruments of war. Ah, it is the nature of man.

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