Britannia Ruled The Waves
The strange little fleet made its way up the river in the dark, the first boat straining to tow the other two. At the helm, the captain stared out over the river, wondering how he had ended up kidnapping two submarines. It had, in fact, all started with a slight, former Christian brother.
After the astounding success of the Catalpa Rescue in 1876, the Clan na Gael was eager to find another mission to capitalize on their new-found fame. When they were approached by John Holland, a slight, Irish-born schoolteacher living in New Jersey, with his plans for a submarine, they saw their opportunity.
Holland, a self-taught engineer, had been born in County Clare in 1841. His early interest in designing a submarine was encouraged by his high school science teacher, a Brother Dominic Burke, and as early as 1859 he had completed a design. Holland taught as a Christian brother in Ireland until poor health forced him to leave the order. At a loss as to how to
support himself, he followed his brothers to America in 1873. Teaching at a Catholic School in Patterson New Jersey during the day, he spent his evenings and weekends working on the submarine. When the U.S. Navy rejected his plans, his brothers, all ardent Fenians, sent him to the Clan na Gael. The Clan na Gael immediately saw the submarine’s potential to undermine the all-powerful British Navy, and voted to fund him. Holland quit his day job and devoted himself full-time to the project. In Clan circles, it was dubbed “the salt water enterprise” but in time, the press would have its own name for it.
Some Clan na Gael members, however, were not happy with this. Led by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the so-called “action men” were impatient with this approach, opting instead for bombing runs into London, the very heart of the empire. Rossa had started a fund aptly called “The Skirmishing Fund” to finance a bombing campaign in England. At first an
embarrassment to the moderate Clan na Gael leaders, Rossa became a legitimate threat when the fund grew large enough to enable him to orchestrate several bombing runs. A power struggle within the Clan na Gael ensued, with Devoy finally gaining control of the fund, and using the money to support Holland’s work. By 1881, John Kenny was the president of the New York chapter of the Clan na Gael, called The Napper Tandy Club. Kenny and the more moderate leaders, including Devoy, continued to back the development of the submarine. The Clan na Gael struggled to keep the development of the submarine a secret, but an outing to watching Holland’s test runs in the open waters off Brooklyn had become an exciting attraction for curious onlookers and families on their Sunday outings. Reporters had taken to calling it “The Fenian Ram,” alluding to the well-founded suspicion that the Clan na Gael was behind it. Scattered among the crowds were British spies, anxiously keeping an eye of the developments.
In time, British-paid instigators infiltrated the Clan na Gael and incited the “action men” into demanding an audit of the funds, effectively freezing the account. When the audit was completed, it “disappeared” from the table on which it had been placed, causing further delay while the auditors re-constructed a finished report from their notes. Under the extended freeze, the Clan na Gael fell further behind on its payments to Holland, until finally there was a fatal rift.
Worried that Holland might sue the Clan na Gael for non-payment and seize the submarine, the Clan na Gael came up with a drastic plan. In November 1883, under the cover of darkness, the Clan na Gael sent a group of men to “kidnap” the submarine and a smaller model, towing them up to the boatyard in Connecticut owned by Reynolds, who had acted as owner of the Catalpa during the Catalpa Rescue.
Once inside Reynold’s boathouse, the boats were safely hidden. Months passed as Holland refused to tell the Clan na Gael how to operate the boat. After one dangerously inept attempt at piloting it, the Clan returned the boat to a shed on the Mill River. There it sat, rusting away. The Clan na Gael’s “salt water enterprise” had been permanently derailed.
Holland continued to develop his submarines, forming the Torpedo Boat Company (later the Electric Boat Company). The US Navy bought his boat in 1900, ordering six more, and navies around the world quickly ordered their own.
Holland died two days before the outbreak of World War I. John Kenny wrote an article on Holland’s life and contributions, published in the Gaelic American. Weeks into the war, a German submarine sank three British cruisers, killing 1,400 men in less than an hour.