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Hibernian Chronicle: The Fenian Ram

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A submarine designed by John Holland, a self-taught marine engineer and architect, it was built in secrecy at a New York City shipyard. But by the summer of 1881, the story got out and the press had a field day with stories of how Irish nationalists planned to sink British shipping on the Atlantic as part of a larger campaign to win Ireland’s freedom.
John Philip Holland was born in Co. Claire in 1840, and grew up to become a schoolteacher.In his spare time, however, Holland became a student of submarine technology. A few rudimentary vessels had been constructed, most notably the Confederate H.L. Hunley in 1863, submarine design was still very much in its infancy. Holland studied everything that was known about these earlier models, and began to design his own. In 1873 he arrived in America and settled in Paterson, New Jersey where he continued to teach and refine his submarine design. But with no funding available, Holland could only dream of seeing his plans take form.
His fortunes changed significantly in 1875, when he sought out John Devoy, leader of the Irish nationalist movement in America, and proposed to build a submerged torpedo boat (the word submarine had not yet been coined) capable of sinking British ships at will. All he needed was funding.
Devoy was head of a secret nationalist organization called Clan na Gael that was committed to winning Ireland’s freedom through violent insurrection. He found Holland’s scheme irresistible and promised to find funding. Elated, Holland continued his tinkering, eventually building a small prototype that he tested in the Hudson.
Devoy, meanwhile, set his sights on gaining control of a sizable sum of money that had been collected by a somewhat erratic fellow nationalist, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. The two had come to America in 1871 as exiled members of the nationalist group the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenian Brotherhood in America (so named in honor of the Fianna, a band of ancient warriors of Irish mythology). While both were committed to winning Ireland’s freedom, they pursued this goal in very different ways. Devoy believed in conspiracy and secrecy while Rossa talked openly about his plans to overthrow the British in Ireland.
In the mid-1870s he flamboyantly announced the establishment of a “Skirmishing Fund” to pay for terrorist bombings and insurrection in Ireland. Many Irish nationalists, including Devoy, cringed at this effort because they knew it would both draw the unwanted attention of the British government and play into the stereotype of the Irish in America as irredeemably violent fanatics.
In 1877, by which time the Skirmishing Fund had reached $23,000, Devoy managed to take control of it by getting himself and two like-minded allies placed on the board that oversaw it. While they changed the name to the more respectable National Fund and announced that it would be used to fund nationalist recruitment efforts, lecture tours, and a newspaper in Ireland, its true purpose remained the promotion of insurrection, albeit secretly and quietly. In keeping with this plan, Devoy began diverting money to Holland’s torpedo boat scheme, eventually expending between $30,000 and $60,000.
Holland contracted with a ship builder in Lower Manhattan to construct the vessel. The shipyard owner admitted to the New York Times that it was a strange enterprise, but said that his policy was never to ask questions so long as the payments for construction came in on time. The craft was completed in the spring of 1881. It was cigar-shaped, thirty-one feet long and six feet wide with room for two to three crewmen. Torpedoes would be shot by compressed air through a tube at the bow.
Holland towed the unnamed vessel to New Jersey and began test runs in June. By early July he was jubilant, having managed to spend three hours underwater without resurfacing. Quite apart from the nationalist campaign that he was assisting, Holland was making history by advancing undersea navigation.
Then on July 29, the rumors that had been swirling about the city were confirmed and clarified in a large feature story in the New York Times entitled, “A Fenian Torpedo Boat.”
Before long, the press had dubbed the vessel the “Fenian Ram” and the name stuck. One of the reasons the project drew so much media attention was the timing. In the summer of 1881 Irish nationalism was experiencing one of its periodic surges. In this case it was the so-called Land War (1879-1882), which involved a simultaneous challenge to the landlord system in Ireland (thousands of tenants refused to pay their rents), and a political movement led by Charles Stewart Parnell to secure Home Rule. Ireland seemed ready to explode in the summer of 1881 when the Fenian Ram story hit the papers. In the end, the Fenian Ram never saw action in the cause for Irish freedom. Just as Holland was getting the final kinks out of the design in 1883, the nationalist movement devolved into bickering factions. Nevertheless, Holland continued to work on his design and eventually established the Torpedo Boat Company. In 1895 he won his first contract from the U.S. Navy and by 1898 launched a highly successful submarine measuring fifty feet in length. He sold many copies to the Navy and eventually to the governments of England, Russia, and Japan. Unfortunately, disputes with his business partners meant he never made much money from his inventions.
At his death in August 1914 at the age of 74 Holland was widely acclaimed as the “father of the modern submarine.”
The true significance of his invention would become apparent to the world beginning only weeks later with the start of World War I, the first conflict in which submarines played a major role. Holland’s original Fenian Ram can be seen at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, NJ.

Sources: Frank Morriss, Submarine Pioneer: John Philip Holland (1961)
Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm

July 30, 1864: Irish coal miners in the Union Army tunnel under Confederate lines outside Petersburg, VA and detonate four tons of dynamite. Despite a huge hole blown into the Confederate line, Union confusion leads to disaster in the “Battle of the Crater.”

August 2, 1943: The Japanese destroyer Amigiri rams and sinks PT 109. Despite a back injury that would plague him for the rest of his life, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy and ten crewmen survive the ordeal.


July 30, 1863: Auto maker and assembly line inventor Henry Ford, is born in Greenfield Township, Michigan.

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Aug 2, 1924: Emmy Award-winning actor, Carroll O’Connor, is born in New York City.

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