Sunday, March 19, 2006

Teacher's historic submarine a part of Paterson lore

By Justo Bautista
March 17, 2006

Growing up in an aging manufacturing city like Paterson, there were plenty of attractions for a youngster like Bruce Balistrieri.

The one he marveled at the most was the big brown cigar-shaped boat behind John F. Kennedy High School in West Side Park, where he went fishing with his father.

Balistrieri knew it was a submarine. He was a big fan of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," a popular TV show in the mid-1960s.

But unlike the Space Age hotel-size submarine Sea View on the TV show, the crude-looking contraption in the park was only 31 feet long.

"We were in a city, and there was a sub," he said, recalling his boyhood fishing outings. "I had no idea what it was doing in Paterson and who built it."

Balistrieri has learned a lot since then about the submarine -- the Fenian Ram -- and its historic connection to Paterson. The 44-year-old William Paterson University graduate has been curator of the Paterson Museum at 2 Market St. for the past 17 years.

The Fenian Ram was built by Irish immigrant and Paterson schoolteacher John Holland and tested in the Passaic River. It is considered the world's first modern submarine and has been housed in the museum since 1980.

This spring, the museum will make history by hosting a delegation from Holland's hometown, Liscannor, a village in County Clare on the western coast of Ireland. The delegation will help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the launching of the Fenian Ram, Holland's second submarine.

Details for the May 1 celebration, are still being worked on, but Balistrieri said the delegation will designate Paterson its sister city.

Previous Holland ceremonies have been attended by World War II submariners and naval groups.

"I wanted to make this a much bigger event," said Balistrieri, who reached out to Liscannor resident Tony Duggan to get the ball rolling.

Duggan contacted the museum two years ago when Liscannor was holding its own Holland celebration. The museum sent Duggan pictures and information about Holland's submarines.

Holland taught at a Christian Brothers school in County Clare and immigrated to America in 1872.

A music and math teacher at St. John's School in Paterson, Holland was also interested in the science of submarines.

He tried to interest the Navy in his plans, but it initially turned him down. That's when the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish-American revolutionary group that wanted to oust the British from Ireland, got involved, financing several of Holland's submarines.

The brotherhood paid $7,000 for Holland's first submarine, and contributed $60,000 for The Fenian Ram, a three-man sub capable of ramming a wooden ship after launching a torpedo.

One night in 1883, a faction of the brotherhood stole the Fenian Ram and a smaller Holland submarine, towing them from an East River pier in New York, hoping to ship them to Ireland. The smaller submarine sank in the East River. The Fenian Ram was towed to Connecticut, where the hapless thieves couldn't figure out how to operate it.

The Fenian Ram was never used in battle. The smaller sub is still at the bottom of the East River, probably buried under 123 years of sediment.

"It would be a fantastic find," Balistrieri said.

From 1927 to 1980, The Fenian Ram was displayed on a concrete base in West Side Park, where it became a curiosity piece and metal canvas for political statements -- especially during the Vietnam War, Balistrieri said.

It received better treatment from Paterson Museum officials, who sandblasted its 38 layers of paint and restored it to a battleship gray.

Each year, about 8,000 students, mostly fourth-graders from all over New Jersey, visit the museum, where the Fenian Ram and Holland's first submarine are on display.

Balistrieri is thrilled by their interest, and his own luck at being the museum's curator.

"In my wildest dream, I never thought I'd be in a museum," he said. "I'm a part-time teacher, a part-time philosopher and I get to play with wonderful historical artifacts every day."



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