Some stories about the Irish Immigrants
An Irishman named John P. Holland, a schoolteacher in Paterson, NJ uses his spare time to invent a submarine or, at the very least, to put it on track to becoming a practical-indeed, deadly- weapon of war.
Holland was born in Liscannor Bay in County Clare in 1842. He was educated at the Limerick Christian Brothers School, and he originally intended to be a Christian Brother, to which end he took vows in 1858 and over the years taught in a number of different places. He also wanted to go to sea, but his poor eyesight prevented him from doing so.
In 1872 the family emigrated to the states, but before leaving Holland was released from his vows.
Holland, the son of a coastguardsman in Ireland, had no formal engineering education, but he started educating himself in engineering and drafting when he was very young and showed a brilliant aptitude for it. He had always been interested in submarines. After all, at the time the British navy was formidable, and Holland looked on the sub as a way of sneaking up unseen and sinking its ships.
In 1874 and 1875, when Holland was trying to first interest the U.S. Navy in his submarine, the idea was not new. Indeed, using a submarine to sink a warship had been demonstrated in the Civil War by the Confederate sub Hulney, which had succeeded in its attack on a warship but sunk in the process. And one hundred years before that a submarine invented by a man named David Bushnell had tried to sink a British ship during the Revolutionary War.
The navy thought the idea a bit preposterous, in part because Holland was not a sailor; this idea, of course, was also preposterous, as if only a sailor could invent a seagoing craft.
But the Fenians were interested. Though they had been dealt a serious blow in the war against England because of their defeat in Canada in 1866, a number of them had reassembled, and Holland presented his idea to them. He impressed them enough to invest some sixty thousand pounds from their “skirmishing fund” for him to build the real thing. He did, and one day the Fenians and Holland assembled on the banks of the Passaic River and the fourteen foot craft was launched.
It didn’t even float, quickly filling up with water and sinking to the bottom. But it was raised, and after an examination it was discovered that one of the workman had failed to install a pair of screws, which had left an opening for the water to pour in through.
The submarine was drained, the screws were installed, and Holland himself too it out. It floated, it dived and surely much to the relief and joy of Holland, it resurfaced.
Holland set about fine tuning the craft. The plan for mounting an attack against British ships was already settled. Holland was well aware of the power of their ships, which made a direct confrontation foolhardy. Sneakiness would be the key. His plan involved launching the sub from a trapdoor in the side of an innocent looking ship that would anchor near the British craft. It was a plan, indeed, that modern navies would use over and over again.
Then, in 1883, the Fenian organization abruptly started to deteriorate. One night a group of Fenians took the sub, which was anchored in New Jersey, hauled it up to New Haven, Connecticut, and tried to launch it. They didn’t succeed, and they abandoned the craft at a nearby brass factory. Holland was incensed, and the great scheme was abandoned. Holland and the Fenians never communicated again.
Holland was truly ahead of his time. His theory about the submarine was that the best possible shape would be that of a cigar. But the soundness of this idea did not emerge until the 1950s, long after Holland was gone.
He never made any money from the submarine, and as time went by he started to be deeply concerned about the havoc a sub could wreak. The validity of his concerns were borne out particularly in World War II, when German “wolf packs” roamed he Atlantic, sending thousands of tons of materials and thousands of people, many of them civilians, to the bottom of the ocean.
Erin Go Bragh