IRA’s ‘Johnston’s Motor Car’ made famous by The Dubliners found in Donegal after almost 100 years

Posted By: June 07, 2019

Seamus McKinney. Irish News. Friday, June 7, 2019
Cathal McHugh believes he has found the last remaining parts of the legendary Johnston’s Motor Car, which was commandeered by the IRA to transport guns during the War of Independence. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
THE remnants of a legendary car used by the IRA in the War of Independence and immortalized in the song Johnston’s Motor Car have been uncovered under a turf stack in Co Donegal.

Retired Ballybofey businessman Cathal McHugh believes he has found the last remaining parts of the old Ford which was commandeered by the IRA and used in an operation almost 100 years ago.

The car belonged to Starnorlar-based doctor Henry Maturin Johnston who was tricked into giving it to an IRA unit to transfer arms from Falcarragh to Dungloe in April 1921.

In need of a vehicle to move the arms, the IRA identified Dr Johnston as having the best car in the county. However knowing that, as a unionist, he would never give the vehicle willingly, they “wired” the doctor to attend a patient at the Reeling Bridge in Glenfin outside Ballybofey.

Dr. Johnston and his wife took a particular pride in his motorcar up until the IRA commandeered it.
When Dr Johnston arrived he was confronted by four IRA men – Henry McGowan, Jim McCarron, Charles Doherty and Willie Tom McMenamin – who commandeered the vehicle.

The daring event was later put to song using the lyrics of a poem written by Ballybofey poet William Gillespie.

Johnston’s Motor Car was hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s through recordings made by The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers and Flying Column and has become one of Ireland’s best known rebel songs.

However, the car itself disappeared for almost a century until discovered earlier this year by Mr McHugh.

“Two years ago I was doing a course at Killybegs tourism college to become a tour guide and I had to do a project so I picked Johnston’s Motor Car. Then after qualifying I thought it was unfinished business so I decided to research it more,” he said.

Donegal GP, Dr Henry Maturin Johnston was made famous in song because he had the best car in the county.
Mr McHugh told The Irish News he tracked down two farmer brothers who told him they knew the full story.

“After the operation, the IRA tried to return the car to Dr Johnston but he refused. They thought if the British army got it, it would be used as evidence against them so they hid it. Two black horses were used to tow it to a field where it was covered with a turf stack and stayed there ever since,” he said.

It was said that as a unionist, Dr. Johnston was annoyed that his prized car was used by the IRA.

However, it has been claimed he was even more annoyed by the line in Gillespie’s song “You could hear the din going through Glenfin of Johnston’s motor car” because he took such a pride in the vehicle.
The Dubliners. Front row John Sheahan and Ronnie Drew. Back row Ciaran Bourke, Barney McKenna and Luke Kelly
Mr McHugh has since found the remains of the vehicle and eventually hopes to have it removed to a museum as an exhibit.

“I’m 99 per cent sure it’s the car. The museum in Letterkenny has all the information about the car and they’ll be able to verify it,” he said.

Mr McHugh also uncovered a tragic twist to the tale.

“McCarron was shot dead by the British Army a year later and, as they did at the time, the soldiers arrived to disrupt the wake and ransack the house. But when the officer looked into the coffin, he immediately called his men to order and removed them from the scene.

“The next night, he approached McCarron’s father and told him that his son had saved his life by carrying him for a mile through a battlefield in France during the First World War,” he said.

Mr McHugh declined to reveal exactly where the vehicle was located, other than to say in the general Letterkenny area. However, almost 100 years after it was last seen Johnston’s Motor Car could be set to make a re-appearance, even fulfilling the promise in Gillespie’s song – “When Ireland gets her freedom boy, you’ll get your motor car”.