Lily Murphy tells how Dr. Henry Johnson’s car was comandeered by the IRA in 1920, leading to the famous ballad “Johnson’s Motor Car”.
Unlike many ballads about the Irish War of Independence, Johnston’s Motor Car is a true tale which is neither tragic or violent. The song was written not long after the event occurred in Donegal but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it gained wider fame, when it was recorded by the likes of The Dubliners and Clancy Brothers.
In late 1920, members of an IRA brigade in Donegal needed an efficient mode of transport to convey arms across the county. At the time Dr Henry Johnston, who resided in Stranorlar, owned one of the best motor cars in Donegal and the local IRA decided to ‘borrow’ it for their own use.
The taking of the doctor’s car by the IRA prompted Willie Gillespie to write a light hearted account of the event. Gillespie, who was born in Ballybofey, penned the song shortly after the event happened and it gained popularity in the 1920s before it was rediscovered during the ballad boom of the 1960s.