The submarine isn’t quite as mysterious today as it was when it first began to make headlines. But, rest assured, when these underwater predators first began to make appearances in warfare, they had as big an impact on thinking as gunpowder, machine guns and airplanes did, despite the fact that it would take a long time for them to actually become effective weapons. A surprising amount of people aren’t aware that an Irishman was at the heart of their evolution, as were the Fenian Brotherhood.
A brief history of the military submarine concept may be instructive. As far back, potentially, as Alexander the Great, armies have used diving bells and other apparatus to gain advantage under the waves. Numerous theorists proposed and even built such craft in the 15th and 16th century without major success, until a Dutchman, Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel, made a working model, oar propelled, for James I of England, which he felt would be able to devastate enemy fleets by means of a battering ram, though it was never employed for this purpose.
Construction of submarines continued in the following centuries. Tsar Peter the Great bankrolled the building of a submarine armed with primitive flamethrower devices in 1720. In 1776 an American inventor, David Bushnell, designed a one-man craft with the aim of using it to attack British ships, but this never came to pass. In 1800, the French Navy built the Nautilus, which doubled as a sailboat, and demonstrated that it could be used to plant mines and sink ships, though it never got anywhere near an actual enemy. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, numerous other nations, especially in South America, experimented with such craft, but without any worthwhile success, many of the prototypes sinking with the loss of all on-board.
During the American Civil War, the science of submarines took a great leap forward. The Union constructed the Alligator, while the Confederacy, seizing the designs of private enterprise, came up with the Hunley. The Alligator would flounder without renown in 1863, but the Hunley, in 1864, demonstrated the potential of the submarine as a weapon of war, sticking a barbed torpedo into a Union sloop-of-war that was blockading Charleston, which sunk within five minutes. The Hunley was lost in the aftermath, the remains of the vessel recovered in 1995, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.
Into this portion of the story now comes John Philip Holland, an engineer and native of Liscannor, County Clare, who emigrated to the United States in 1873. While working as a maths teacher in Cork, Holland read accounts of the first ironclad warships that had experienced a brief but famous bit of combat during the American Civil War, that forever altered the landscaped of naval warfare afterwards. Holland, a man beyond his time and surroundings, realised that conventional naval tactics against such ships would be difficult if not counter-productive – as the initial fight between the Monitor and the Virginia demonstrated, the two ships firing at each other for hours without result – and theorised that the best way to attack such vessels would be from underwater.
Unable to get any support for his ideas or his designs in Britain, Holland tried again stateside, but the US Navy, now over a decade after the end of the Civil War, was no longer as interested in speculative projects with little chance of substantial end product. Holland’s story should probably have ended right there, in terms of what the history books would consider notable, but then the Fenian Brotherhood, of all organisations, stepped in.
We’ve already seen that the Fenians in American had a taste for both the overly-ambitious and the theatrical in the raids into Canada, which had the nominal goal of using the northern territory as a bargaining chip to gain Irish freedom, a rather ridiculous notion, the unlikelihood of which was borne out by the limited extent of what the Raids actually achieved. In the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, with the Fenian Brotherhood being overtaken by Clan na Gael and close to extinction, elements of its membership were willing to turn to extreme projects.
Thus, Holland found himself being bankrolled by the Fenians, to the extent that he was able to dedicate himself, full-time, to his submarine designs and prototypes. What he created was initially simply known simply as the Holland Boat, which in 1878 he successfully demonstrated to his Fenian backers, staying submerged underwater for an hour, operating the craft himself. This led to the Holland Boat II, better known as the Fenian Ram.
The Ram was bigger and stronger than the Holland Boat. Based somewhat on the torpedo of English engineer Robert Whitehood, just bigger, it was 30 feet in length and just under 6 foot in height. Three crew could fit inside, an operator, an engineer and a gunner. Unlike previous designs, the Ram was somewhat innovative in that it was not designed to simply add ballast until it sank, but instead to use its horizontal planes and positive ballast to force itself underwater when it had forward momentum.
In order to be useful as a military craft it had to have some manner of armament of course. The Ram’s was a nine-inch pneumatic gun, which was mounted on the the vessels centre line, firing forward. The gun fired dynamite filled steel projectiles with the aid of air pressure. It was hardly the kind of thing we popularly associate with submarines, but at the time it was a weapon that could easily account for wooden ships.
Which brings us to what exactly the Fenians were going to do with a working military submarine. The answer to that question is not easily found. Entities like the Fenians, especially when they were in a bad state financially, are often prone to grab at whatever straw they can, in this case the kind of wonder weapon the submarine symbolised. I’m sure Fenian leaders enjoyed wild thoughts of terrorising British shipping and the Royal Navy with their trump card, perhaps not realising that even the most well-built submarine in the 19th century was prone to breakdown, sinking and general haplessness, even if they managed to sink an enemy ship (for example, it is theorised that the Hunley’s crew may have been knocked unconscious by the detonation of their torpedo, set off too close to the submarine).
By 1883, Holland had moved on to the Holland Boat III, a scaled down version of the Ram only 16 feet in length, which he planned to use in experiments to improve the submarines navigational abilities. But by the time Holland had finished the III, relations between him and the Fenians had soured. Maybe they were no longer satisfied with the return they had gotten for the investment they had made, or maybe they just realised that the submarine was decades away from being a potent weapon of war. Either way, payments were slowed or stopped, and Holland ceased working for the Fenians.
In response, members of the Brotherhood made the foolhardy decision to steal both the Ram and the Holland Boat III from their slip in Jersey City in the Hudson Basin. Heading towards New York, with both of the submarines tied up in sequence behind their own boat, the Fenians lost the III as they neared Queens, the newer submarine breaking free of its tether and sinking, never to be recovered (to this day).
You may have spotted a flaw in the Fenians plan. Nobody in the organisation had the skill to work the Ram, or, apparently, the aptitude to learn. Holland, naturally, refused to have anything more to do with the Brotherhood. Unable to find a buyer for the submarine, the Fenians were forced to hide it in a shed on the Mill River.
The Fenians in America had little time left, but Holland had plenty of accomplishment ahead of him. Working on a private basis afterward, Holland further perfected his designs, and finally sold a submarine, the Holland Boat VI, to the US Navy in 1900, the Navy’s first commissioned submarine. This design was later adapted in the submarines of the Royal Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy, with the Holland Torpedo Boat Company being the distant ancestor of the modern day defence contractor giant General Dynamics. Holland died in August 1914, on the eve of a war where submarines would play a pivotal role for the first time. While sometimes inaccurately dubbed the inventor of the submarine, he certainly did more than most to turn it into a viable weapon. When a memorial for him was unveiled outside his former school in 2014, representatives from the United States, Britain and Japan were present, in recognition of his role in shaping their navies.
As for the Fenian Ram, it’s history didn’t end there. In 1916 it was displayed in New York as part of an effort to raise money in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and from there moved back into official hands, currently residing in the Paterson Museum in New Jersey, a rather well-preserved example of early submarine designs.
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