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Irish genealogist

The Widow Gamble

Did she exist and if so who was she? 


Many placenames in modern Monkstown remember a character in history called the Widow Gamble. For instance, the unofficial name for the crossroads at Mounttown is Gamble's Hill, while a nearby house is named "Gamble's Lodge". A snug bar beside the historic Purty Kitchen pub in Old Dunleary is known as "Widow Gambol's". The widow's name also lives on in chilling folk tales known to local children as late as the 1930s, although many history books on the area question whether she ever existed. Historyeye investigated who might have been the real-life inspiration for these stories and came up with at least two candidates who lived over fifty years apart.  

The stories told about the Widow Gamble are particularly wild and garbled. According to different sources, she lived during the time of the Cistercians at Monkstown Castle, but she also happened to be informing on fugitive priests during Penal Times. Then again she was a poor woman who put curses on people who denied her charity. At the end of her life she was supposed to have been lynched for her treachery. Alternatively she was poisoned by one of the local gentry for laying a widow's curse on their child, who ended up with a face like a pig. Her ghost is said to now haunt Carrickbrennan Graveyard, Monkstown Castle and Mounttown,typically carrying an axe in one hand and a key in the other. (1.)


Surprisingly, Mounttown Hill is a supernatural hotspot, claiming a long folk tradition of headless coachmen, malign fairies and ghostly apparitions extending up to De Vesci Place. As if sensing something other-wordly, horses would routinely baulk on their way up the hill and refuse to go forward. Perhaps it was the hill's close proximity to Carrickbrennan Graveyard or the fact that the Semple family who owned the demesne house close by chose to call it Fairyland.


By the 19th century the area was also known as Sunnyhill,although locals preferred the more evocative Dark Hill. (2.)The present Upper Mounttown Road marks the boundary wall of Monkstown Castle Farm and is an ancient byway that connected with the now lost Back Road to Dunleary. It was once prone to eery mists coming from the lake or fish pond beside Monkstown Castle, known as Copinger's Pond. (Drained in the 20th century). 


In the 1930s children in Monkstown  collected stories about the area from older relatives. Some of these tales included the Widow Gamble. These stories were set down by the Irish Folklore Schools Programme in 1937 and are available on the Dúchas website. Some of the children also referred to Widow Gamble as Widow Gammon.  


Who was the real Widow Gamble? Plainly an unpopular woman judging by the tales told about her. One possible candidate was Hannah Gamble, an inn keeper at nearby Blackrock. Records show that the Gambell, Gambol or Gamble name was associated with a famous place of local hospitality in the mid 18th century.(3.) The Sign of the Ship tavern at Blackrock was run by Thomas Gambell and his wife Hannah Peters, daughter of landscape gardener Mathew Peters and his Dublin-born wife, Elizabeth Younge.


Hannah was born about 1740, most likely on the Isle of Wight where her father was working. She came to Dublin after Mathew Peters set up a seed shop and garden centre near Hammond Lane on the north side of the city. The Stowe-trained Peters was much in demand among Dublin's gentry. His work for the Earl of Charlemont's magnificent, now lost glasshouses at Casino Marino was documented in the 2014 exhibition, Paradise Lost.    


Parish records show that Thomas Gamble and Hannah Peters were married in 1761 at St. Paul's Church, North King Street, Dublin. (4.) The groom was likely to have been a relative of the Gambles who traded as linen merchants in the Liberties of Dublin. There is no evidence that he was connected to the Rev. Thomas Gamble of St Michan's parish, best known for ministering to Robert Emmet before his execution in 1803. 


All traces of the Sign of the Ship tavern are long gone, but it was likely to have been situated overlooking Dublin Bay near Tobernea Terrace, not far from modern-day Seapoint Dart Station. It was a popular and fashionable destination for Dublin day trippers and was reputed to have had its own ballroom. Historian Francis Ball described it as the principal public house in the area. An alternative name for the tavern was the Man of War


Hannah was widowed eight years into her marriage in 1769. Monkstown Church of Ireland parish registers record the burial in Monkstown churchyard of a Thomas Gamble of the Black Rock in April 1769. Hannah carried on with the business and over time the Sign of the Ship became known increasingly as "Widow Gamble's". Newspapers of the 1770s would often refer to various events taking place at the Widow Gamble's, Sign of the Ship in the Black Rock. (5.)

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