Holland received a common school education in his native town, and later attended the Christian Brothers school at Ennistymon, then that at Limerick. During the years 1858-1872 he taught school in various parts of Ireland.
Holland conceived the submarine boat in his youth, and as a patriot saw how it might be used against the British navy to secure Irish independence. He studied the scanty literature of undersea effort, including the work of Bourne, Bushnell, and Fulton. The discouraging failures of these experimenters spurred rather than deterred Holland, and by 1870 he had prepared plans for a submarine boat, but since he lacked financial means to proceed with construction, he temporarily laid aside his plans.
Late in 1873 he came to the United States and settled the following year in Paterson, New Jersey, where he found employment as a teacher in St. John's Parochial School. In 1875 he offered his submarine design to the United States Navy; it was rejected as a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman. The Fenian society (Irish Republican Brotherhood) then came to his support and financed his first experimental craft, one-man size, fourteen feet long, with a tiny dubious steam engine. This boat, tested in the Passaic River, 1878, was recovered from the river mud in 1927 and placed in the Paterson museum.
The Fenians supplied Holland with some $23, 000 to build a full-size submarine, which, it was hoped, would cross the Atlantic and destroy the English fleet; and the Fenian Ram was launched in the Hudson River from the Delamater yard in May 1881. It was thirty-one feet long, six feet beam, nineteen tons displacement, with a one-cylinder internal-combustion oil engine. It had a crew of three men. It made frequent runs beneath New York harbor and in 1883 dived to a depth of sixty feet and remained on the bottom one hour. The Fenian Ram (excepting obvious defects in its power system) embodied the chief principles of the modern submarine in balance, control, and compensation of weight lost with torpedo discharge. It exists virtually intact as a memorial in a city park in Paterson, New Jersey. The impatient Fenians took it from the inventor's hands but were unable to put it to practical use.
In 1886 Holland joined forces with Lieutenant Edmund L. G. Zalinski, of dynamite-gun fame, and a third experimental boat was constructed-without the inventor's supervision. The hull was badly damaged by a launching accident and the enterprise terminated for lack of funds. Holland continued, however, to make designs on paper, saved from total discouragement by the faith and friendship of Lieut. (later Rear Admiral) W. W. Kimball, who advocated his ideas at Washington for a quarter century. At the invitation of the Navy Department, at various times from 1888 onward, Holland submitted, in competition with other designers, plans for a submarine, and in each instance his plans were selected, but for one reason or another federal appropriations were not forthcoming with which to proceed with construction.
In 1895, however, the J. P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company obtained a navy contract to build a submarine according to navy specifications, for the sum of $150, 000, and the Plunger, as the vessel was called, was started at the Columbian Iron Works, Baltimore, Maryland. The inventor's ideas were largely ignored and the boat was in effect the creation of Admiral George W. Melville, chief of the naval Bureau of Steam Engineering. It was clumsy, overpowered, replete with traditional notions, and was abandoned as a failure.
Holland had $5, 000 of private capital left. He began to construct a boat incorporating all the ideas which he was prevented from using in the Plunger. This vessel, called the Holland, was built in the Crescent Shipyards, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and launched in 1898. It was fifty-three feet ten inches long, ten feet in diameter, and had a submerged displacement of seventy-five tons. Its armament consisted of one bow torpedo tube, one bow pneumatic dynamite gun, and several Whitehead torpedoes. It was fitted with a gasoline engine for surface propulsion and with electric storage batteries and motor for submerged cruising. One of the novel features of the vessel (shared by the earlier Fenian Ram) was its ability to dive by inclining its axis and plunging to the desired depth.
After a number of severe tests the Holland was purchased by the federal government in 1900, and a few months later six more vessels like it were ordered. In addition to filling these orders from the United States government, Holland's company built submarines for Great Britain, Russia, and Japan. To him must be accorded the credit for bringing the submarine to a state of practical value.
In December 1900 he contributed an article on "The Submarine Boat and Its Future" to the North American Review. Amid outward success, the inventor was not happy in his relations with the financiers of his company, who wished to retire him as a figurehead at a salary of $10, 000 a year. In 1904 he made an attempt to form a new company but partly because of litigation brought against him by the reorganized Electric Boat Company, which he had left, was unsuccessful in raising capital. He designed two submarines for Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. He devised in 1904 a respirator for escape from disabled submarines, similar to a device adopted by the United States Navy a quarter century later. Holland foresaw the modern uses of the submarine in science, commerce, and exploration.
His final years were devoted to experiment in aeronautics. He died in Newark, New Jersey.
On January 17, 1887 Holland married to Margaret Foley of Paterson, New Jersey, who with four children survived him.