A history of ‘Dr. Johnston’s Motorcar’

By Pauline Murphy

The Irish rebel song ‘Johnston’s Motorcar’ was written not long after the incident mentioned in the song happened in Donegal. The song was made popular during the ballad boom of the 1960s, when it was recorded by the likes of The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers.

The song is about a real life incident which occurred in the winter of 1920, when members of an IRA brigade in Donegal were in need of an efficient mode of transport to convey arms across the county. At that time, Dr. Henry Johnston, who resided in Stranorlar, owned one of the best motorcars in the north west and the IRA in Donegal decided to borrow it for their own use.

The taking of the doctor’s car by the IRA promoted Willie Gillespie to write a light-hearted account of the event. Gillespie, who was born in Ballybofey, penned ‘Dr. Johnston’s Motorcar’ shortly after the incident happened and it gained popularity in the 1920s, before it was rediscovered during the ‘60s ballad boom.


Dr. Johnston, who was born in 1851, came from a well-known family of doctors. He attended Queens University in Belfast, where he studied medicine and then in 1875, he set up a practice in Stranorlar. 

The four IRA men involved in ‘commandeering’ Dr. Johnston’s car, were Company Captain Henry McGowan, Jim McCarron, Willie Tom McMenamin and Charles Doherty. All four were from Ballybofey. McGowan suggested to IRA HQ that he lead an attack on RIC stations in Glenties in order to relieve pressure on his area of Ballybofey, which had come under severe scrutiny from the authorites. 

The arms to conduct such attacks were in Burtonport near Dungloe and McGowan needed to collect them, but he had no decent mode of transport to do so.

Captain McGowan and his three comrades entered Cloghan Post Office and ordered the postmaster’s assistant to send a telegram to Dr. Johnston in Stranorlar. 

The telegram was sent to the doctor asking him to attend a very sick woman by the mane of Mrs. Boyle, who resided near the Reelin Bridge. There was indeed a Mrs. Boyle living near the Reelin Bridge, but she was in good health and not at all at death’s door as the fake telegram had suggested! Without hesitation Dr. Johnston, along with his wife, got into his car and sped in the direction of Mrs. Boyle’s house. 

By the time he reached the Reelin Bridge, he found it blocked by a number of wooden posts. Leaving his wife in the car, Dr. Johnston went to remove the roadblock, when suddenly he was met by four men brandishing revolvers.

The doctor asked the men to remove the roadblock because he had a sick patient to attend to. Dr. Johnston then showed the men his official permit to travel, but he was told to keep his permit and instead to hand over his car. The enraged doctor walked with his wife to Cloghan Railway Station, where they boarded a train to Ballybofey. Dr. Johnston then reported the seizure of his car by the IRA to the British authorities that were stationed at Dromboe Castle.

The four IRA men took the car and drove it to Burtonport, where they collected their arms and transported them to their brigade area. None of the four IRA men were ever arrested for the taking of Dr. Johnston’s motorcar. The car was later parked up at Sweeney’s Hotel in Burtonport, which was used as a safe house for the IRA. When extra British forces were drafted into Donegal, they raided the hotel and retrieved the doctor’s car.

In the ballad, we are told “you could hear the din go through Glenfin of Johnston’s motorcar” and when the song was published, the doctor resented this particular line. Dr. Johnston was very proud of his vehicle and was known to take meticulous care of it and he was very disgruntled by the fact the song writer called it noisy! Dr. Johnston eventually got his beloved motorcar back and he remained a GP in Stranorlar until his death in 1932.

Today, there is a petrol station on the site of Dr. Johnston’s house and practice in Stranorlar and a small granite plaque on the wall there indicates it as “Johnston’s Corner”.

Featured image via finnvalleyhistory.com