The Fenian Ram

Every now and then, while reading something on naval of maritime history I come across a mention of an early John Holland submarine built in 1881 called the Fenian Ram. All I know is that it was built with funds provided by an Irish-American group advocating an independent Ireland. I guess the idea was that it would be given to the Irish rebels to use against British shipping, however I can’t find the details of such a plan. As it turns out the Fenian Ram was given a very short test cruise and then passed from one museum to the next. It’s been at the Patterson Museum in New Jersey since 1927.

What I’d like to know:

How did the US government feel about American citizens building sophisticated weapons for use by insurgents against the largest navy in the world? Did the US government even know what Holland was up to?

What exactly was the intended mission of the vessel? A morale-boosting suicide mission against a Royal Navy capital ship? Commerce raiding?

Why didn’t the vessel ever become operational? Were they just planning on handing it over to the Irish rebels or was it to be crewed by Americans?

All I can really find out about the Fenian Ram is technical details. I’d really like to know more about the politics involved in what seems to me to be the 19th Century equivalent of private citizens building an A-bomb in the 20th century.

Holland was a Irish born immigrant to the United States. As you noted he was very Anglophobic. But his intent was not to arm Irish nationalists; he built the Fenian Ram as a prototype to convince the United States Navy to buy submarines. Undoubtedly, he must have realized that strengthening the American navy would threaten the British (the United States and Great Britain having far less cordial relations a century ago).

Holland’s plans were generally unsuccessful. The heads of the navy in that era were firm believers that God favored the “bigger battleships” and considered subs to be either ineffective or dishonorable. Holland won a few contracts to produce more prototypes but he never managed to sell any subs for general service.

I keep reading references to the Fenian Society hoping they could use submarines against the British. Were they just hoping to give the USA an advantage in an expected Anglo-American war? I suspected that the Society saw the submarine as a “poor man’s weapon”, much like some of the weapons of mass destruction (gas, atomic weapons, etc.) sought today by insurgent and terrorist groups.

You may already have found this site, but it is pretty interesting. It does not explain the actual connection between Holland and the Irish rebels, but it does point out that

  1. the newspapers gave the Fenian Ram it’s name, based on its funding patrons;
  2. the Fenians stole the boat after an argument with Holland (not elaborated upon) then abandoned it when they realized that only Holland could operate it;
  3. Holland severed all ties with the Fenians after their theft of his boat;
  4. Holland was quite happy (15 or so years later) to sell his boat to the Brits.

If you do a google search on Fenian Ram, then select the cached site for the Clare County Library, they give a fairly nice overview. (The Clare Library has apparently severed its ties with the original ISP and the primary link does not work, so go quickly before the cached Google link disappears.) According to this site, the Fenian Brotherhood wanted the sub as a terrorist weapon, launched from a merchan ship.


Not to be confused with the Laird Rams, (massive ironclad cruisers with 9" bore guns built by British yards for the Confederate Navy) … The US told the British “no way do they cross the Atlantic” and the British ended up buying them for themselves.
The Feinians (in this context) was a large, revolution-minded secretive Irish society centered along the Canada/New England border. It would seem that their primary goal was to take over Canada as a sort of “New Ireland”. That which was bad for the British was seen as being good for the Feinians.

I’m a loner, Dottie … a rebel.

Thanks for the links, Tom. I find the story about the Fenians stealing the boat to be particularly interesting. Were they simply “reposessing” it from Holland or did they actually plan to use it against British shipping? I also wonder, with all the media attention, if the Fenians had been able to load the boat onto an eastward bound ship would the US government have done anything to stop them or would they have tacitly wished them happy hunting?

BTW-Thanks for the tip about accessing cached sites. I clicked on that link before posting and just thought it was no longer available. It never occurred to me that cached meant that the site had been, well, cached. You learn something new everyday.

Along these same lines, you may be interested in a little book entitled Monitor. I believe the author was Thomas Mackay. It tells the story of the development and acquisition of the Monitor (of Civil War fame)and the famous battle of Hampton Roads.

I was fascinated by the farsightedness and persistence of the inventor, in direct contrast to the shortsidedness and fickleness of the government and its bureaucracies.

“We don’t get much call for that around here, Sir.”

Sorry, the author of Monitor is James Tertius De Kay.

I did a quick look at and the book received five-star reviews, so apparently someone besides me liked it.

“We don’t get much call for that around here, Sir.”

I highly recommend the Monitor book. Also check out the small subs that the Confederacy had built. They lost several crews but did move forward the idea of using subs as war machines by either pulling or pushing mines or other explosives into ships.