Infamous IRA ambush of Donegal doctor's motor car reaches 100-year anniversary
Irish History

Infamous IRA ambush of Donegal doctor's motor car reaches 100-year anniversary

ONE hundred years ago this month, one of the most renowned incidents of the War of Independence in Donegal took place.

It involved an IRA plan to seize a motor car, still a rarity in Ireland in 1921, and use it to run guns across the country.

The car they chose to steal belonged to a local man of medicine, Dr Henry Maturin Johnston, who was born in Cork in 1851, and would later go on to establish a practice in Stranorlar.

In 1921, an IRA Company Captain named Henry McGowan proposed an attack on Royal Irish Constabulary based in Falcarragh and Glenties to divert the Crown’s forces in Ballybofey, where they built up a formidable presence.

To do so they needed to collect guns from nearby brigades, but the fledgling paramilitaries had no means of transport.

An elaborate plan was drawn up to seize a car belonging to Dr Johnston: a telegram requesting he pay a visit to Mrs Boyle – a sick but prosperous patient living near Reelin Bridge – was sent from Brockagh Post Office.

So, accompanied by his wife, Dr Johnston departed Ballybofey in his car, only to find that as he came to Reelin Bridge, the road was blocked.

A group of armed IRA men descended upon the car, ordered the couple out, and drove it to collect their guns in west Donegal and transport them to a secure brigade area.

One version of the tale has it that Dr Johnston lost his medical bag and bottle, which were later returned to his home in Stranorlar by horse and cart.

Nobody was hurt during the incident, which is held up as a reflection of IRA tactics when competing against Crown forces before the advent of readily available and affordable cars.

The episode was immortalised as an Irish rebel song called ‘Johnston’s Motor Car', written by William Gillespie, a poet from Ballybofey, shortly after it occurred.

A line from the song – "you could hear the din go through Glenfin of Johnston’s motor car" –greatly irked Dr Johnston as his motorcar, one of the best cars in Donegal and in immaculate condition, was a great source of pride.

Dr Johnston worked as a GP in Stranorlar until his death in 1932.