Johnston, Robert (1840–1937), nationalist, was born 17 March 1840 in Deerfin near Crebilly, Co. Antrim, one of four sons and four daughters of James Johnston, farmer, and Peg Johnston (née Dempsey) of a farming family in Liminary, Ballymena. Johnston is an anglicised form of the Gaelic name Mac Seáin, and this nationalist-minded family could trace their ancestors back to the mid eighteenth century in the foothills of Slemish Mountain. Robert joined the Molly Maguires and later the Fenians. He played a leading role in organising the Irish Republican Brotherhood throughout Ulster, often travelling on foot.
When Robert married (1861) Margery Magee, whose father was a native of the Pettigo area, Co. Donegal, he moved to Bryan St., Ballymena, and worked as a building contractor. Two of his children were born there. James (b. 1 November 1862) became a solicitor, and was imprisoned in 1916 on the prison ship Argenta and in Frongoch, north Wales, which ruined his health. He died in his home, Salthill House, Mountcharles, in 1932. Anna Isabel (b. 3 December 1864), the poet better known by her pen-name ‘Ethna Carbery’ (qv), founder of the Shan Van Vocht and wife of the writer Seumas MacManus (qv), died in Donegal 2 April 1902. Margaret, the third, was born in Belfast 20 November 1868 and died, unmarried, in 1935.
When the Fenian James Stephens (qv) escaped from prison in November 1865 the first man he wanted brought to him was Robert Johnston, known in the movement as ‘Johnston of the North’. After this Robert had to go into hiding; he stayed with his maternal grandmother in Ballymena. When the hue and cry died down he moved to Belfast and began contracting there. Later he established sawmills and lumber yards and imported timber from Norway and America. He also bought property and became very prosperous. On business trips to the USA and Canada he kept in touch with leaders of Irish organisations. He represented Ulster on the supreme council of the IRB, and was a founder member of the Belfast branch of the Amnesty Association and the Kickham Literary Society. He was a special friend of C. J. Kickham (qv) and represented Ulster at his funeral (August 1882). He was also a friend of C. S. Parnell (qv), who always stayed at his house, ‘Lios na bhFiann’, in the Antrim Road when visiting the north. At the split he sided with Parnell and got the Ulster Hall as a venue for his last meeting in Belfast. After Parnell's death he was on the committee to erect a monument in his honour. He stood unsuccessfully as a Parnellite candidate for Newry in the 1892 election.
Johnston travelled to France in 1892 with Mark Ryan (qv) and Maud Gonne (qv) and attended the unveiling of a monument to the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy. They also presented Marshal MacMahon, the victor of Magenta (1859), with a sword.
‘Lios na bhFiann’ was a meeting place for those interested in Irish politics and culture. The offices of the Shan Van Vocht (1896–9) were located in Johnston's timber yard at Great Georges St., Belfast. He contributed to national causes: the Oireachtas, the Gaelic League, the Amnesty Association, the 1798 Commemoration Committee, and Feis Uladh. His family all predeceased him; he died at his home, Lisnaveen Knock in the parish of Movilla, Co. Down, on 27 March 1937. He is buried in Greencastle cemetery, Belfast.