Hard to believe that the genius inventor of the modern submarine tested the very first prototype in the North Mon pond.
But it’s true – and the link with one of Cork’s most historic schools is among several fascinating connections between world-renowned engineer John Phillip Holland and the city, according to Tony Duggan, special advisor and research to a new documentary on Holland, and a former teacher at the North Mon.
Holland, who, believe it or not, actually started out in life as a young teaching Christian Brother in the North Mon before leaving the Order and emigrating to the USA in the 1870s, was inspired by another teacher at the school – the world-renowned scientist, Brother Dominic Burke:
“It was in the North Mon that, as a young teacher, John Holland met Brother Burke.
“Brother Burke and John Holland made a wooden prototype of the design which was first tested in the North Mon Ornamental Pond between 1858 and 1862,” explains Tony, who says it’s believed Brother Burke’s own deep interest in the application of electricity to underwater propulsion was one of the driving forces behind John Holland’s interest in submarines – Holland, whose father came from Cork later developed the first US and British submarine fleets.
In fact, as Holland’s first rough submarine designs were drafted in the late 1860s they pre-dated Jules Verne’s famous novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (written in 1870.
So in other words, this young Cork schoolteacher was working in the realms of what was regarded as science fiction.
Last but not least, the Irish Examiner may have played a role in inspiring John Holland to pursue a career as a designer of submarines, according to Tony Duggan – on April 1st 1862, John Holland, then staying with his aunt near Montenotte, read an account in what was then The Cork Examiner, of a Civil War naval battle some weeks previously between two iron-clad ships off the US coast.
“It caught his imagination – he saw the end of wooden warships,” says Tony.
Born in Liscannor, Co Clare, to where his father had moved to Cork, John was sent to Cork as a young teacher by the Christian Brothers.
“Here he had a lot of opportunity to work in the science and maths areas, and always spoke very fondly of his time with the CB because it was there that he got the opportunity to start thinking about engineering, maths and science,” observes Deaglán Ó Mocháin, producer of John Philip Holland: the Inventor of the Modern Submarine, which airs on TG 4 tomorrow night (Tuesday Nov 22).
After resigning from his teaching position at the North Mon – he didn’t like the rigid, highly disciplined classroom atmosphere of the times - Holland emigrated to the US in 1873 at the age of 32 – after breaking a leg in an accident, he revisited his designs from his Cork teaching days and found that they still stood up to scrutiny. After being introduced to the Irish Republican Brotherhood organisation in America by his own brother, Michael, John was invited to present his plans for a submarine to the IRB. The organisation agreed to fund the development of Holland’s first submarine and later, in the 1880, to underwrite a bigger submarine known as The Fenian Ram. This model formed the basis of much of future submarine principles in terms of safety and stability, and in terms of the distinctive shape of the hull, designed to mimic the movement of porpoises Holland had watched as a child in Co. Clare.
However, although it invested up to $60,000 in the project and Holland delivered a fully functioning submarine, there was intense disagreement about the project in the IRB.
Eventually Holland washed his hands of the movement, entering, and winning a competition run by the US Navy for a submarine design. Ten years later, in the mid-1890s, Holland won the contract to build a submarine for the US Navy but found it difficult to work with Navy officials.
Eventually he took a huge risk, and with the support of his financial backers, decided to build a submarine of his own.
Holland tested his Holland VI in front of the US Navy in 1898-99, and was able to convince them of its merits. The Holland VI was subsequently bought by the US Navy, and became the USS Holland, their first commissioned submarine, in 1900.
The Holland VI is recognised today as the first fully functioning modern submarine, and Holland is affectionately regarded as the Father of the Modern Submarine as a result.
The US Navy contracted Holland to build additional submarines, under the supervision of a new entity called the Electric Boat Company (ECB).
This was set up in 1899, and in exchange for a substantial salary, and a position on the board, Holland signed over the rights to his submarine patents to the company.
Holland submarines sold internationally, and the ECB obtained contracts to build the first submarine fleets for the US, British, Russian, Japanese and Dutch Navies.
A principled man and an utter perfectionist about his work, says Deaglán, Holland repeatedly cautioned the company about what he believed where flaws in the submarine. His advice was ignored and he was side-lined as a crank and a maverick by the company, eventually resigning.
Although he planned to design his own submarines independently of the ECB, legal action prevented him from doing so, while, now in his mid-sixties, he was also hampered by ill-health. Holland died in August 1914, in Paterson, New Jersey, just as World War One began – and just as submarines were used as a significant weapon of war for the first time.
- John Philip Holland: the Inventor of the Modern Submarine, is broadcast at 9.30pm on TG 4 tomorrow night.