Gamble, John (1770?–1831), physician, traveller, and writer, was born at Strabane, Co. Tyrone, into a local presbyterian family and reared by an uncle (perhaps John Sproull of Strabane), an apothecary. It is likely that he came under the influence of William Crawford (qv), the ‘new light’ minister at Strabane, and possible that he attended the academy which Crawford opened there (1785). Gamble studied medicine at Edinburgh University, wrote a thesis on rheumatism and graduated in 1793, entered the army as a surgeon in the Queen's Rangers (6 July 1796), and took part in an expedition to Holland commanded by Sir Ralph Abercromby (qv) (1799). A few years later (apparently in 1803) the regiment was disbanded and Gamble, who suffered from an infection of the eyes, was put on half pay.
He is best known for his narratives of three tours of Ulster he made in 1810, 1812 and 1818, published as Sketches of history, politics and manners taken in Dublin and the north of Ireland (1811), A view of society and manners in the north of Ireland (1813) and Views of society and manners in the north of Ireland (1819). Travelling sometimes on foot, he engaged in conversation men of different ranks in society and religious allegiances. His accounts contain observations on food, dress, social customs, Irish and other music as well as some lengthy retelling of anecdotes; they are invaluable for the light they throw on relations between catholics, presbyterians and protestants in Ulster and on the nature of Irish national awareness. His personal knowledge of Ulster and familiarity and sympathy with the poor distinguish his accounts from those of other tourists. Remarks, in the first book, on the trial of Robert Emmet (qv) brought a libel action by a prosecuting barrister, William Conyngham Plunket (qv), against the Dublin booksellers, Gilbert and Hodges; the remarks were omitted from a later edition (1826).
Gamble's only purely political writing was a pamphlet published under the pseudonym ‘A Protestant Dissenter’, Brief observations on the present state of Ireland (1811), in which he candidly urged ‘catholic emancipation in the most extensive acceptation of the word’ and seemed even to advocate a catholic establishment in Ireland comparable with the presbyterian establishment in Scotland (pp 18–19, 30). Gamble also wrote fiction, publishing Sarsfield, or wanderings of youth: an Irish tale (3 vols, 1814), Howard (1815), Northern Irish tales (2 vols, 1818) and Charlton, or scenes in the north of Ireland: a tale (3 vols, 1823; new ed., 1827). An early influence on James Clarence Mangan (qv), he has been called ‘the first Ulster author’ on the ground that he was the first whose writing ‘has the history, character and destiny of the province as its enabling concerns’; his sense of place, accentuated in his fiction, ‘inaugurates one of the most persistent themes in Ulster writing’ (O'Brien, ‘First Ulster author’, 131, 136). He regarded presbyterianism as ‘beyond all others the religion of reason’ (Sketches, 251), but, while objecting strongly to the Orangemen, greatly admired catholicism as a religion of sentiment. Unmarried, John Gamble died 18 May 1831 while attending a funeral at Lifford and was buried at Leckpatrick near Strabane.