Northern Ireland news

Mystery over whereabouts of Johnston's Motor Car sparks cross-border debate

Businessman Cathal McHugh is adamant he has found the remains of Dr Johnston's car. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Seamus McKinney

CLAIMS about the whereabouts of a legendary car commandeered by the IRA during the War of Independence have sparked fresh debate - ironically between north and south.

The car belonged to Stranorlar doctor Henry Maturin Johnston and was used to move arms from Falcarragh to Dungloe in April 1921.

Knowing that as a staunch unionist he would not give it up willingly, the IRA had “wired” Dr Johnston to attend a patient at the Reeling Bridge in Glenfin.

When he arrived, four IRA men were waiting to take the car.

No-one was injured but the song Johnston's Motor Car, by Donegal poet William Gillespie, was later recorded by The Dubliners and others and became particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

After the IRA operation, the car disappeared from view. However, earlier this year retired Co Donegal businessman Cathal McHugh told how he had found remnants of the vehicle hidden under an old turf stack near Letterkenny.

Mr McHugh said his research led him to two farmer brothers whose family had passed the story down through generations.

Moneymore man Tom Morris used a similar Model T, if not the actual Johnston's motor car, to travel around the Derry and Tyrone border area

Fearing the car would be used in evidence, the vehicle was brought to the farmers’ family home and hidden under turf.

Mr McHugh said: “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.”

But after the story appeared in The Irish News, Co Tyrone reader Patrick Conway contacted the newspaper to raise "conflicting evidence".

Mr Conway, who lives near Ballinascreen on the border between Tyrone and Derry, said he recalled information gathered some years back by historical researchers based on recordings in the 1960s by local priest Fr Louis O’Kane with IRA men from the 1920s.

“Within this report, it is claimed that Johnston’s motor car was used within the Ballinascreen division of the IRA and hidden in a turf stack near the county march on the Glenelly road," he said.

"This is the border between Derry and Tyrone and the border between the two parishes of Upper-Badoney, my parish, and Ballinascreen."

Mr Conway said the researchers believed the car was kept under a turf stack until it was recommissioned as a “company staff car” by the IRA and later used as a taxi.

The research by the Sixtowns Historical Society uncovered a photograph of the car along with Moneymore man Tom Morris.

While the 100-year-old photograph is grainy, it compares favourably with a picture of the actual car with Dr Johnston in it, although Model T Fords were not uncommon at the time.

“I believe it is an interesting read, especially when it comes to the mysterious doctor’s car,” Mr Conway said.

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