GHOST STATE After Action Report: Session #1

Bratislava, Slovakia, at night

(Needless to say, this is a report on my Night’s Black Agents RPG session last week, put here mostly for my players’ information. Links to real places, businesses, or entities does not mean I’m claiming werewolves and vampires are running around in them murdering people. Use some common sense, people…)

Session: 11 October 2013
Locale(s): Brussels, Belgium, then Bratislava, Slovakia

Scene 1: A Meeting in a Pub
Following the individual invitations, the newly assigned GHOST STATE field team arrived one by one at O’Duibheamhna’s Irish Pub, whereupon they relinquished all electronic devices and were shown into a private back room. Greeted with an array of pub appetizers (all fried, of course), the agents engaged in conversation while waiting for their handler to appear. Agents ZD/EAGLE and KU/RED LYNX noted the existence of an unbroken line of wood ash outlining the contours of the room and took samples.

Agents then met European Internal Action Service (EIAS) Asst Director Gregor Baumann, aka QU/CANVAS, who thanked then for coming and implored them to maintain operational secrecy at all costs. He also warned them of the disturbing nature of what he was going to show them. An aide brought in a secured laptop, and CANVAS played them the Video.

Scene 1a: The Video
Stitched together from CCTV and traffic camera footage, the Video displayed a late-night underworld meet in a parking garage in Bratislava, Slovakia, between a little under a dozen individuals. Identified participants included: Dr. Jürgen Fassbender, a Swiss researcher who up until recently had been considered deceased, along with his colleague Dr. Jens Kellermann, also believed dead; Juraj Cermak, head bouncer for the Bratislava nightclub La Verne; and Ctirad Kolesar, a disheveled-looking instructor with the Goethe Institute-Bratislava. Apparently, Fassbender was attempting to sell an unidentified substance in a freezer case to Kolesar in a deal apparently facilitated by Cermak. After some tense chit-chat, the deal was concluded with a monetary exchange for the unidentified substance. As the meet was about to break up, one of Cermak’s bodyguards moved over to a nearby car, complaining of a strange smell, whereupon a huge, clawed hand reached out from behind the car and ripped the bodyguard’s head clean off. All hell then broke loose.

A hairy, bestial creature over 9 feet fall, with a snarling canine visage, huge claws, and wearing an iron pendant in the shape of a swastika, lunged out from behind the car. Designated WEREWOLF-1, the creature made to attack Dr. Kellermann, the closest prey to him. In his panic, Kellermann dropped to his knees, soiling himself, and WEREWOLF-1′s slash went wide. Several bodyguards pulled guns and unloaded into WEREWOLF-1, including a straight shot to the groin. Riddled with bullets and blood and gore spraying everywhere, WEREWOLF-1 remained standing. Cermak pulled a TEC-9 and peppered the car next to WEREWOLF-1, puncturing the gas tank. Then the bodyguard in a Free Hugs t-shirt holding the freezer case took off running, as did Kolesar, although he moved with such speed it’s difficult for the grainy footage to track his movements.

WEREWOLF-1, its injuries seemingly knitting themselves back together on the spot, sped off after the bodyguard with the freezer case, as other bodyguards took wild shots at the beast and Drs Fassbender and Kellermann took off in another direction with their money. WEREWOLF-1 chased the fleeing bodyguard out of the parking garage onto the streets of Bratislava, disrupting traffic and creating a panic. Its uncanny speed too much for the bodyguard to outrun, WEREWOLF-1 caught up to its prey, whereupon the bodyguard tossed the case in the air and kept running. Before WEREWOLF-1 could react, Kolesar appeared out of seemingly nowhere and snatched the case out of the air. Then, with lightning speed, WEREWOLF-1 tracked over to Kolesar, and with a load snarl grabbed Kolesar’s arm holding the case and proceeded to rip it clean off in one pull! With blood shooting from his mangled shoulder stump, Kolesar said something not picked up clearly by the footage and ran off. WEREWOLF-1, still holding the case and the arm, transformed back into a naked Caucasian man and got in an escape car that pulled up. The Video then ended.

Scene 1b: Digesting
Field team members reacted viscerally to the Video, but no one so much that clean up was required. CANVAS then laid out the parameters of GHOST STATE:

  • Project: GHOST STATE is a black operation within J-Section of the EIAS that shall report only to CANVAS through a secret protocol;
  • Main mission is to investigate the scope and scale of apparent supernatural conspiracy (including connections and/or threats to EU and Europe as a whole; how far it is embedded into European society) and, once identified and labeled as threats, dismantle the conspiracy networks with extreme prejudice;
  • Field agents will maintain their current covers as EIAS J-Section operatives;
  • CANVAS has set up protocols to keep agents’ J-Section duties from conflicting with Ghost State operations;
  • GHOST STATE shall have operational independence to follow leads wherever they go, and once said leads bare fruit, to raise to a coordinated case level;
  • GHOST STATE shall work out of a safehouse/HQ located in the Ixelles neighborhood of Brussels; and
  • Funds for operational activities shall be provided through a specially set up Black Vault administered by a special contact in a local branch of the British betting firm Ladbrokes.
  • Any potential intelligence transitioning through EIAS that seems pertinent to GHOST STATE shall be flagged as LOOSE DOSSIERS in the GHOST STATE database, and agents can follow up at their leisure.

CANVAS finished by emphasizing the need for operational security, noting that agents of the conspiracy or conspiracies could already be embedded deep within the European state structure and security apparatuses. As evidence, CANVAS called up on the secured laptop images of a tidy office marred by the eviscerated corpse of a middle-aged man in a suit. CANVAS identified the man as Broos Fortuyn, Deputy Director of the EIAS Counterintelligence Center. The cover for his murder was that he had been transferred back into the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD in Dutch) for a secret mission. CANVAS noted than Fortuyn had been murdered in this most foul way only days after he had tasked Fortuyn with the very mission that GHOST STATE would now carry out.

Field agents asked a series of quick questions about the reasons for the ash in the room (CANVAS suggested it was for protection, but he was not more forthcoming); the nature and disposition of the safehouse; and other operational details, which CANVAS answered curtly. The meeting then concluded, agents went on their separate ways, eventually convening at the Ixelles safehouse the next day.

While RED LYNX installed hidden caches of vampire kit (e.g., crosses, silver, stakes, holy water, etc) and SM/IMPACT, a former army chaplain in the British Army, made holy water, the agents took a day to strategize their next move. After some research on the principal players of the Video, agents decided to move operations to Bratislava to better investigate the MAGENTA YARD network. Agents agreed to rendezvous in two days and that QU/BLACK HAT was operational leader for this mission.

Scene 2: Black Ops in Bratislava
Field agents set up shop in a downtown Bratislava hotel and put their surveillance plan into motion. On Day One, it involved:

  • BLACK HAT, SA/GORGON, and XP/SABER set up a surveillance van outside the Bratislava branch of the Goethe Institute, a German language and cultural mission that also happened to be the place of employment for Ctirad Kolesar. GORGON hacked the Institute network, which was much more secure than a simple cultural mission network should be, and downloaded considerable data that she spent the next few days going over. BLACK HAT infiltrated the Institute as a prospective student and placed a bug in Kolesar’s office (which later overheard a call referencing a shipment), discovered Kolesar’s home address and, more intriguingly, found a black handled ceremonial knife secreted in the desk. SABER spent the day in the van monitoring various bug feeds as agents placed them, but also noticed some teachers from the Institute taking a smoke break in a nearby park seemingly going over note cards each of them brought.
  • ZD/EAGLE, BF/PREACHER, and DA/FISHHOOK visited the La Verne nightclub, where Juraj Cermak is the head bouncer. With a brush pass, EAGLE lifted Cermak’s phone and planted a bug in it before slipping it back. Intel from the bug noted Cermak received a series of short calls all night where people provided 3-4 digit numbers. FISHHOOK then spent the rest of the night on a street bench outside the club, whereupon he noted an unusual number of bag men coming to and from the club after hours.
  • RED LYNX canvassed the bar scene, looking for a sense of how the werewolf attack was being perceived in Bratislava, but came away with the odd notion that nobody was talking about it at all.
  • IMPACT looked over the various police reports from the parking garage incident, noting that the local police were perplexed by the strange blood found at the scene.
  • IO/WIZARD, having forged some antique Germanic knives back in Brussels, used his fence connections to let it be known that that they were for sale to the right buyer.

On Day Two, field agents continued their investigation:

  • EAGLE, PREACHER, and BLACK HAT canvassed Kolesar’s apartment in a working class neighborhood of Bratislava. PREACHER noticed there appeared to be heat already watching the place (two men sitting at an outside cafe table with a military air about them). EAGLE slipped Ambien into their drinks, and once the men were out, lifted their wallets (seem to be Germans) and signaled the others to enter. BLACK HAT and PREACHER entered the messy apartment. In the process of tossing the place, they discovered a Tupperware in the fridge containing severed fingers (PREACHER fingerprinted them all); a dried bloody mess in the bathroom that included a strange fatty tissue substance in the bath (agents sampled it); and under the bed in the box spring a box with index cards in it (had names, sometimes pictures, and blood types of seemingly random people).
  • FISHHOOK cased the parking garage attack crime scene, looking for clues missed by local police. He eventually found in a crack in the retaining wall (where WEREWOLF-1 had vaulted into the street chasing after the thug) a broken-off claw, seemingly from WEREWOLF-1.
  • GORGON, continuing to shift through network data, discovered that one of the Goethe Institute teachers had a number of emails with embedded code to and from a nurse in the pathology lab at the University Hospital in Brno, Czech Republic.
  • SABER obtained plans for the Goethe Institute, La Verne, and Kolesar’s apartment from the local city planning office. Working with RED LYNX, they discovered a secret, reinforced room in La Verne.
  • WIZARD, following up his forged knives bait, obtained the name of an archaeology professor at the University of Vienna known for moving oddities in the region, Prof. Dr. Karl-Heinz Rusch.



Loose Dossiers
The following raw intelligence reports were transferred by EIAS protocols to the GHOST STATE database:

The Ghost State Campaign

Cover to Night's Black Agent

So this is part of the rpg campaign announcement/pitch I sent to my gaming group last week:

You are a field agent of the European Internal Action Service (EIAS), a secret organization within the European Union tasked with monitoring and defending the internal security of the nascent supranational state. You have worked for the EIAS for only a few months (give or take) in a department known as J-Section, spending most of your time on routine signals surveillance of EU and nation-state bureaucrats (mostly doing INDECT database queries, followups on INTCEN analysis reports, and, very rarely, traditional on-the-ground spying). Through this somewhat tedious work, you have become casually acquainted with several other field agents in your department. It seems, all in all, a decent if bland place to work. Not every spy can be James Bond after all.

Two days ago, you received an encrypted email from Gregor Baumann, Assistant Director of Operations for the EIAS, with whom you have never directly spoken to before. In it, Baumann notified you that you were being effectively transferred to a new operational department within J-Section, which he described as PROJECT GHOST STATE, but that you were not to speak of this with any of your co-workers until after the organizational meeting, scheduled for 7pm on Friday, October 11, 2013 in a private room of an Irish pub called O’Duibheamhna’s, located just outside the city center of Brussels.

Five minutes after opening and decrypting this email, the EIAS servers seemingly purged it from the system, leaving behind no trace or remnant.


For the last few years, I’ve been enjoying a resurgent interest in tabletop role-playing games. This is mainly down to me finding a great group of players who can play on a relatively consistent basis. We’ve spent a lot of time playing various Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaigns or other D&D-derived games (e.g., The Fantasy Trip, Dungeonworld, Adventurer Conqueror King), as well as other systems that piqued our interest (e.g., the original Marvel Super Heroes game, Mongoose Traveller, Spycraft, Other Dust).

My last campaign, called First Cities, was built around D&D 3rd Edition, but using a variant called E6 that capped advancement at level 6 (which helps mitigate certain issues with scale in 3rd Edition D&D). Setting-wise, it was a Bronze Age hack of D&D, using analogs of the cultures and societies of the Ancient Near East. My other blog, He Who Saw The Deep, has several posts examining how I created and developed that campaign, for those that might be interested. I mention it here because when I finished with that campaign a few months ago, I found myself a bit burnt out on the ancient and medieval focus of most D&D-based rpgs. I wanted something completely different in tone, scope, and prep. Hence, the Ghost State Campaign was born.


Ghost State is my supernatural spy thriller campaign using Ken Hite’s Night’s Black Agents (NBA) rpg as the rules set. Hite built NBA using the GUMSHOE System created by Robin Laws, which means the game is less about player investigations being stopped cold by bad die rolls and more about driving investigative stories forward in an organic and exciting way. To me, the GUMSHOE System and NBA strike me as a hybrid between a traditional rpg and indie story games like Fiasco or Durance. It has some intriguing rules crunchiness without being a huge mess of rules and tables other espionage games like Spycraft tend to be. It’s free-flowing investigation system seems like the perfect rules set to build an espionage game around. And the supernatural focus simply adds another level of spice to the whole stew.

As the campaign call revealed above, the players will be part of a secret (and wholly made-up) European Union spy agency that is working to uncover the dark and supernatural heart that exists at the core of European politics today. This conspiracy (or layers of conspiracy — I can’t get too specific here because the players haven’t even had a chance to investigate yet) has supernatural roots stretching back into ancient European history, but the immediate game setting is one also informed by current real-world events. Hell, I wrote up a game handout on Tuesday that was entirely inspired by an Ars Technica article that popped up in my RSS reader that day (Newsblur, if you care). Unlike First Cities, where I had to do an intense amount of almost specialized research to craft that setting, Ghost State is all about grafting my supernatural mythos on contemporary Europe. In this, Google is very much my friend.


Ultimately, with this campaign, I’ve merged my scholarly interests in the European Union and European integration with my rpg gaming fetish, which in turn means the verisimilitude of my Ghost State Europe setting is informed by my demonstrative expertise in contemporary European history and politics. It also allows me to do geeky and awesome prep like developing my own Sensitive Compartmented Information classification system for the EIAS’s loose intelligence files. You can see an example of the intelligence file cover sheet I worked up below:

j-section snip

This PDF is also a full Loose Intelligence Dossier for my players, which means it’s a piece of unassigned intelligence (i.e. a loose lead) that they can or cannot follow up on at their leisure. This is the fun stuff when it comes to game prep, that’s for sure.

My plan is to provide periodic updates on the campaign’s progress. What form that takes will vary depending upon whether it’s something I’ve put together or if some players get ambitious and produce after action reports.

Fitness Failure?


I have for the last couple of years been slowly but surely gaining weight. This vexes the hell out of me, as you can well imagine if you happened to peruse any of my Summer of Fitness posts from the summer of 2011.

What it means in practical terms is a severe regression in fitness and health, taking me back to unhealthy levels I haven’t seen since 2008. How do I know this? Well, beyond rather obvious general body flabbiness, it’s because I have kept data on my weight since I first started paying more attention to my health in 2007 (sometimes less than diligently), and I tossed it all into an Excel spreadsheet. It looks like this (click for a bigger version):

ADD body weight chart 15-apr-13

The reason for this gradual rise in my body weight is no great secret to me. I have for almost all of this period engaged in fairly regular and pretty vigorous exercise. This has mostly been weight training and basic cardio. And hell, in the last eight months or so I’ve even taken up outdoor running, but you’d never be able to tell that based on the chart.

No, it has all come down to supreme laziness when it comes to nutrition and diet. Like I wrote about in the summer of 2011, Coke really will be the death of me, and I have grown amazingly disinterested in monitoring portion size. Lately, a combination of lack of full employment job stress and new baby fun has meant I stopped trying to add torturing myself with healthy eating on top of all the other issues, which was nice and all in the short term, but man…

So, whether I like it or not, it’s time to get back on the goddamn bandwagon and stay there — if nothing else to stave off the dia-beet-us (h/t Wilford Brimley) that runs rampant throughout the entire paternal side of my family.

This will take a couple of tracks. In terms of exercise, my plan is to get back into a modified form of the weight training program I had made for me way back in 2009, which I previously wrote about here. However, as befits my busy schedule (ha!) and my apparent inability to commit to so much exercise, I’ve chopped the weight training days down to three, spreading the leg workout day between the other three days and chopping out a few individual exercises I don’t like from the program to keep it manageable. To minimize also the amount of time at the gym, I plan to shift my cardio to outdoor running with some of my friends (including Rich Forest, among others) on the off days (so an idealized schedule would look like: MWF weight training; TR and Sat or Sun running). This should result in the weight workouts taking less time, which means I’m more likely to do them (which has been a big part of the problem lately).

The other track is a more rigorous approach to nutrition, focused mainly on portion control; not eating so much fast food/processed food/crap food; and finally breaking my sugared pop addiction. This means Monday, when I start that particular component, I will be one bitchy asshole for a while, so Twitter watch out.

I hope to write about this fairly often over the course of the spring and summer, but unlike the Summer of Fitness period in 2011, I’m not going to engage in any silly branding or anything like that. Just not interested in doing that right now…

See you at the gym!

 Featured Image: “Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, Sunrise, Light, Running Man,” used by Creative Commons license.

The March 2013 History Carnival: Good Vibrations

Demonstration using a vibrator, 1891

Hello and welcome to the March 2013 edition of the History Carnival, a monthly showcase of history blog writing at its finest. My name is Andrew D. Devenney, and once again it is my honor and privilege to host this month’s edition at my not-particularly-active-lately website. Let’s get to it, shall we?

As is usual for this sort of endeavor, I received an eclectic mix of nominations that amazingly fell into a few distinct thematic areas. I have attempted to make some coherent sense of this bounty, but have had to pick and choose to make it all fit (such is my prerogative, I guess).

British and American History Bazaar

To start off, several nominations this month touched on a broadly defined theme of British and American history. For instance, at Tropics of Meta, Lauren MacIvor Thompson explores the historiographical literature surrounding the supposed use of vibrators and sexual release as a “cure” for hysteria in Victorian women, in a blog post entitled “The Contested Space of the Victorian Vagina: The Myth of Vibrators and Hysteria Therapy.”

At Vaguely Interesting, Ian Curry digs up an interesting nugget of historical ephemera involving US and British operational codewords associated with the D-Day landing in France curiously appearing in the answers to Daily Telegraph crossword puzzles prior to the invasion in June 1944.

Susan Ozmore, writing at Saints, Sisters, and Sluts, provides a capsule biography of Harriet Lane, the “Democratic Queen” and niece of US President James Buchanan. Lane served as First Lady at the White House during Buchanan’s one term in office prior to the Civil War.

Finally, at the History Tavern, Nathan C. Traylor begins a series of posts on the American Journey to Liberty with a post exploring the role the 1763 Treaty of Paris played in stoking discontent with Great Britain among the American colonies.

History as Discipline

There were quite a few pointers to posts in February that engaged broadly with the discipline of history. For instance, Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted critiques the macro-historical tendencies in the work of Jared Diamond (he of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse fame, for those of you who have been living under a rock the last fifteen years).

Chad Black at his blog Parezco Y Digo attempts in an intriguing post to articulate and work through the implications of developing a new platform for presenting long form historical narratives on the internet.

At Play the Past, a guest post by Ron Morris of Ball State University entitled “The Future of the Civil War through Gaming: Morgan’s Raid Video Game” teases out the greater potential role historians could play in the creation of historical games and what value these games might have for public history and history education.

Marc Parry at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Percolator blog traces references to the terms “cliometircs” and “quantitative history” in Google’s corpus of digitized books to see if the recent turn to quantitative history is not so recent after all.

And finally, while not necessarily a blog per se, Robert Townsend in the February 2013 issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History magazine writes about a recent report that claims that history graduate education in the US is failing to prepare graduate students in basic research skills and to adopt more modern research practices.

History of the Mind

The field of intellectual history produced a few nominations in February. At Early Modern Thought Online: The Blog, Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter explores views in early modern German thought regarding the connections between material experience and historical study, particularly in how the study of history as a replacement for personal experience pertained to the study of moral philosophy. Part of a series of posts on Experience in the Moral Realm (a round-up of previous posts can be found here), Heßbrüggen-Walter’s post is quite a read.

A guest post by Nils Gilman at the US Intellectual History Blog entitled “What is the Subject of Intellectual History?” created a bit of stir in February, with Gilman’s attempts to define what he considered the appropriate limits of intellectual history receiving considerable push back at the blog and on Twitter. A Storify put together by the pseudonymous Twitterati Grumpy Historian captures the flavor of this discussion and provides an interesting counterpoint to the post in question.

Update: For additional context to the discussion over Nils Gilman’s piece, take a look at “What is the Subject of Intellectual History–A Response” by Edward Blum and this comment Gilman made to another post where, in defending himself, he labels his previous efforts as “trolling.”

And that’s that for the month of February. Now get reading!

Next month’s History Carnival (the 120th edition — how time flies) will be hosted by “Got Soil?”, a blog dedicated to horticulture and gardening history. If you would like more information about the History Carnival, you can find it online at, or follow the Carnival on Twitter (@historycarnival).

Featured Image: Illustration of Vibrator Demonstration, 1891, used under a Creative Commons license from the Wellcome Library.

New Baby Alert!

So yeah, this happened last Friday:

Mairi Camryn Devenney

Mairi Camryn Devenney, Sleeping Soundly on Day One.

This would be my new daughter, Mairi Camryn Devenney. She was a tiny little thing, coming in at 6 lbs, 3 oz and only 18 1/4 inches long (the Wife apparently makes small babies, since this was only slightly bigger than the Boy). Speaking of the Boy:

The Boy Meets The Girl for the First Time.

The Boy Meets The Girl for the First Time.

Mother and daughter are both fine, having come home from the hospital yesterday. Now the business of the Great Baby Watch begins.

The Wolfe Affair: Nationalist Networking on the Celtic Fringe

1870 Atlas Map of Ireland and Scotland by Samuel A. Mitchell.

(This essay has been cross-posted at Irish Diplomatic History.)

On Tuesday, 18 September 1962, a Scottish nationalist politician named William Wolfe and an Irish government diplomat and civil servant named Con Cremin met in Dublin, Ireland, for a late dinner. Having never previously met, they talked into the evening about recent European politics and economics, presumably ate some food, and agreed to talk again on Friday the 21st for a follow-up to a small request Wolfe was making of the Irish government.

This is a fairly insignificant nugget of historical ephemera that, in most circumstances, would not register in the broader historical record. After all, the human past is littered with moments similar to this that leave no historical traces or remnants behind for historians to investigate, interpret, and impart meaning upon. They are simply lost in time like tears in rain.

However, this particular dinner has left behind a paper trail in the archives. This is because the circumstances of Wolfe and Cremin’s meeting were not without some subdued political controversy. Even more serendipitous, both men reported back to their respective political masters– for Wolfe, the National Council of the Scottish National Party (SNP), of which he was a member, and for Cremin, the Irish government of Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Seán Lemass — providing written descriptions of what they discussed and their views on the other.

What follows then in this post is an examination of this late night meal between Wolfe and Cremin — or more appropriately, its surviving archival record. My reasons for exploring this are twofold, one scholarly and the other less so. First, it is important for scholars working on the history of the modern British Isles to keep the transnational interconnectedness of regional politics and diplomacy in mind when doing their work. Second, part of the fun and the frustration of doing historical work is needing to weigh differing descriptions of the same historical event.

Irish or Welsh or English political activity did not take place in a hermetically-sealed bubble; in fact, the various political actors in the region were talking with each other, passing on information, ideas, suggestions, and other kinds of aid. That is to say, there was and is a transnational political culture in the British Isles that has become more prominent as globalization and the information age has shrunk distances between people and places. This meeting between Wolfe and Cremin represents one small example of a wider phenomenon often obscured by a parochial focus on national histories. And this dinner, with its surviving dual accounts, offers an interesting lesson in how historians go about evaluating and interpreting conflicting primary source materials.

In other words, I am making a small point about transnational politics in the British Isles in the 1960s and engaging in an intellectual exercise for fun. Welcome to the weird fixations of a historian.


Letters and Correspondence of the Wolfe Affair.

L’Affaire Wolfe began with an innocuous letter to the Irish Taoiseach from Ian MacDonald, the National Organizer of the SNP. Dated 22 August 1962 and on SNP stationary, the letter requests a meeting for mid-September between Wolfe – described by MacDonald as “our candidate in the recent West Lothian by-election, when we forced the Unionists and Liberals to lose their deposits” – and either Lemass himself or another representative of the Fianna Fáil government. The SNP’s reason for requesting a meeting with the Irish Taoiseach was, as the letter states, “so that we may get some indication of your attitude to Scottish independence, and an idea as to how far you would be prepared to support us.”1

Innocuous as it may seem on the surface, the MacDonald letter caused some consternation in the Office of the Taoiseach. A handwritten notation on the letter from N.S. Ó’Nualláin, the Secretary to the Government and chief civil servant, suggests asking the Department of External Affairs (DEA) for advice on how to reply. In the subsequent official request to External Affairs, dated 24 August 1962, Ó’Nualláin noted that the only previous correspondence they could find that was at all relevant was two letters from the Scottish National Congress, dated to 1956-57, asking for the Irish government’s aid in bringing Scotland’s case for independence from the United Kingdom before the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. This was not the same organization as the SNP and thus offered no useful precedents for a reply.2

After a few weeks delay, External Affairs responded in a letter dated 11 September 1962. Written by Con Cremin as Secretary to the Department, the letter suggests that Wolfe “should be received at a fairly high level,” but then goes on to question whether “it would be appropriate for the Taoiseach to see him.” It then recommends having either a member of the Dáil or Seanad (the Irish houses of parliament), or an official in External Affairs meet with Wolfe.3

On 12 September 1962, Ó’Nualláin wrote to Ian MacDonald, apologized for the delay in responding, and indicated that Wolfe would be free to meet with Cremin in place of the Taoiseach. To explain why Wolfe could not meet with Lemass himself, Ó’Nualláin explained that the Taoiseach “while, naturally, sympathetic … is unable to see how he could take any effective action to support your Party until the people of Scotland, by a majority, have demonstrated their desire for the constitutional change which he understands that your Party have in mind.”4

In a written response dated 13 September 1962, MacDonald accepted the meeting with Cremin on behalf of Wolfe before finishing up with a mild response: “While I agree that the Taoiseach is unlikely to be able to take any effective action at the present moment, I feel sure that we may be able to get some advice on various aspects of the future development of our Party.”5


Sean Lemass on the cover of Time Magazine, 12 July 1963.

So, what was going on in this brief flurry of letters and ministerial notes? What exactly was the chief difficulty? The short answer is, of course, politics, but there was more going on than simply political gamesmanship or the managing of an uncomfortable political situation.  It is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that a high profile meeting between the Irish Taoiseach and a representative of the SNP in the early 1960s could have spawned a diplomatic incident between Ireland and Great Britain. The reason for this was nationalism, or more specifically, the seemingly burgeoning threat the Scottish nationalist movement represented to the British constitutional system.

In the early 1960s, the Scottish nationalist movement entered a period of dynamic growth and development that would last well into the 1970s. During this, the SNP transformed itself from, in the words of Scottish historian Christopher Harvie, “a resilient little sect” into an organized political party built to contest and win parliamentary elections.6  This transformation included not only instilling new levels of professionalism, organization, finance, and policy analysis in the party as a whole, but also extending the party’s connections with various nationalist movements and other sympathetic political groups throughout Europe. The SNP’s outreach to the Irish government was merely an extension of this activity, i.e. nationalist networking.

Ideologically speaking, the Irish Government under Lemass’s Fianna Fáil Party should have been rather sympathetic to the goals of the SNP, and by all accounts, it generally was. The Party’s background was one firmly rooted in the anti-Anglo-Irish Treaty camp. As such, under the guidance of Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, it played a key role in reshaping the Irish Free State around a populist Irish Republicanism that sought to weaken and eventually remove British political ties to Ireland. Therefore, Fianna Fáil was the sort of successful nationalist party the emerging SNP wanted to connect with, if only to gain advice on how to grow and develop their own nationalist party and achieve independence from Britain they way Ireland had (although presumably without the violence of the Anglo-Irish War). Both sides understood this dimension very well. In fact, according to Wolfe, during their dinner meeting, Cremin openly acknowledged just that: “Mr. Cremin gave me to understand that the Fianna Fáil Party would probably be very sympathetic with the aims of the S.N.P. In fact, any Irish Party in power would probably be just as sympathetic as Fianna Fáil.”7

However, for the Lemass Government, there was very little upside to having the Taoiseach publicly meet with a representative from the SNP. Anglo-Irish relations in the early 1960s were moving through a slow burn normalization process after years of tension related to past conflicts over Irish independence, neutrality, and partition.8  This normalization mainly took place within the context of Britain and Ireland’s first applications to join the European Economic Community (EEC); that is to say, relations between the two governments grew less contentious as problems with overcoming French resistance and attaining EEC membership forced them to work more closely and cooperatively. Lemass suddenly appearing to give public aid and comfort to a minority political independence movement inside Britain could have disrupted the thawing bilateral relationship with the British, which in turn could have damaged his wider economic modernization goals.


William "Billy" Wolfe in 1963.

So what of the mid-September dinner meeting between Wolfe and Cremin then? Both men provided written reports dated early October 1962 on their encounter to their superiors. Each report describes the circumstances of the meeting’s origins before turning to a substantive discussion of the meeting’s topics and contents. However, this is where the reports begin to differ, not necessarily about the factual details, but rather on the relative importance each man placed on the various topics of conversation and the goals of the meeting.

Wolfe’s report, labeled at the top “Private and Confidential,” is nearly four single-spaced pages of detailed description, exploring his dinner with Cremin along with a follow-up meeting the Irish civil servant arranged for him with Dr. Donal McCarthy, the then director of the Irish Government’s Central Statistics Office (CSO). In it, Wolfe provides basic historical background on Cremin, Lemass, and a few other figures in Irish politics, presumably as context and information for the other members of the SNP’s National Council. The remainder of Wolfe’s report consists of observational commentary on what he and Cremin discussed over dinner.

Wolfe had nothing but praise for Cremin, describing him as “obviously a man of great experience” and later “a very shrewd observer of the World political scene.” As to what they spoke off, Wolfe denotes several distinct topics, including Britain and Ireland’s attempt to join the EEC; the situation in Northern Ireland and whether EEC membership would provoke movement on Irish reunification; the benefits of Scotland entering the EEC as an independent nation; the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Irish politics; odds on the Conservative Government in Britain surviving much beyond 1964; Gaelic language policy; and, strangely enough, Canadian politics (brought up partly in how it related to EEC and Commonwealth concerns for Britain).9

There are some interesting little conversational gems buried in Wolfe’s report. In mooting the idea of SNP representatives meeting with de Valera instead of Lemass, Wolfe describes the aging Irish President as the “G.O.M. of Irish politics and the ‘Father’ of Fianna Fáil…[who] apparently takes a very long view of politics nowadays, in fact some of his colleagues apparently think that his view is much too long.” In discussing Scotland’s potential as an independent nation in the EEC, Wolfe writes that Cremin assured him that Scotland would find support not only from small European countries for them but also from France, where “educated French people definitely regard Scotland as a separate nation.” Amusingly, Wolfe also notes some choice comments Cremin apparently made about US diplomats on the world stage at the time: “Mr. Cremin also passed some remarks about the Americans whom he thought were rather naïve in World politics and who had made many serious blunders and who had much to learn about or in the acquisition of diplomatic and political polish in the conduct of their international affairs.”


The cover to Niall Keogh's biography on Con Cremin and his career during the Second World War.

Cremin’s report on the meeting is rather different.10 Addressed specifically to Ó’Nualláin in the Office of the Taoiseach, it is a more terse and to the point document. He describes Wolfe as “extremely agreeable and sensible” while also noting that he was not as obnoxiously nationalistic in his conversation as he might otherwise have been (or as Cremin diplomatically put it, “without any extravagance in the expression of the nationalist opinions which he obviously sincerely holds”). As to what they specifically discussed, Cremin dismisses most of it thusly: “We had naturally a long conversation from which, however, nothing of particular note emerged.” The contrast with Wolfe’s more expansive topic by topic breakdown is striking, albeit not particularly surprising, considering the relative differences between the two men’s official positions and their differing goals for the meeting’s outcome.

However, what Cremin does focus the rest of his report on are the two issues that had gripped the upper echelons of the Government while deciding whether to accept the meeting. These were: 1) what specifically Wolfe and the SNP wanted from the Irish Government; and 2) whether or not they could or should actually help the SNP.

According to both reports, Wolfe and the SNP sought the Irish Government’s help in developing a set of national financial statistics for Scotland. Presumably this was in order to have a basis for more effectively comparing the position of Scotland to the other Celtic Fringe areas of the British Isles and demonstrate that the region was financially worse off because of its subservient role in the United Kingdom. Cremin mentions that he promised Wolfe he would look into the matter and then brought the issue before the Taoiseach the next day. As he also notes, his advice to Lemass was to “put Mr. Wolfe in touch with Dr. [Roy] Geary [then Director of the Economic Research Institute in Dublin] — which would have the double advantage of his making contact with a competent body which is not official.” Lemass agreed, or as Cremin put it, “The Taoiseach felt that we could at least go this far.” Obviously, the diplomatic optics of the situation were still very much on their minds.


In the end, the archival record remains stubbornly silent as to whether this encounter produced much of anything (although with further research…). Dr. Geary was apparently away on vacation, which necessitated the back-up meeting Wolfe had on the following Friday with Dr. McCarthy at the CSO that both Wolfe and Cremin briefly comment on in their reports.  Beyond that, the only remaining archival remnant is a fulsome thank you letter, dated 28 September 1962 that Wolfe sent to Cremin. In it, the SNP man thanks Cremin for the “help and useful advice” he and Dr. McCarthy had given to him. Wolfe then ends on a wistful note: “Now that we have established a link with you I sincerely hope that it will be strengthened and that the day is not too far distant when you will have an ‘opposite number’ in Scotland.”11

Time and political developments in the UK have yet to confirm Wolfe’s hopeful prediction, although the existence of an SNP First Minister in a devolved Scottish Parliament and an independence referendum on the horizon does speak to some fairly significant changes in the political fortunes of Scottish nationalism lately. However, in 1962, such issues were well in the future. Instead, the focus then was on movement building, of which nationalist networking throughout the British Isles was only one particular facet. The Wolfe Affair reflects an early attempt by a young nationalist movement to reach out to a more established and successful cousin. It was most certainly not the last.

Image Credits:


  1. Macdonald to Lemass, 22 August 1962, National Archives of Ireland (NAI), Department of the Taoiseach (DT), S.6022 B/62.
  2. Ó’Nualláin to Cremin, 24 August 1962, NAI, DT, S.6022 B/62.
  3. Cremin to Ó’Nualláin, 11 September 1962, NAI, DT, S.6022 B/62.
  4. Ó’Nualláin to Macdonald, 12 September 1962, NAI, DT, S.6022 B/62.
  5. Macdonald to Ó’Nualláin, 13 September 1962, NAI, DT, S.6022 B/62.
  6. Christopher Harvie, Scotland and Nationalism: Scottish Society and Politics 1707 to the Present, 4th Edition (London: Routledge, 2004), 162.
  7. William Wolfe, Report to National Executive of SNP, 4 October 1962, National Library of Scotland (NLS), Robert McIntyre Papers, Acc. 10090/89.
  8. Maurice Fitzgerald briefly discusses this changing dynamic in Anglo-Irish relations in Maurice Fitzgerald, “The ‘Mainstreaming’ of Irish Foreign Policy,” in The Lemass Era: Politics and Society in the Ireland of Sean Lemass, eds. Brian Girvin and Gary Murphy (Dublin: UCD Press, 2005), 82-98.
  9. Wolfe, Report to National Executive, 4 October 1962. Subsequent quotes in this section are from this document.
  10. Cremin to Ó’Nualláin, 5 October 1962, NAI, DT, S.6022 B/62. Subsequent quotes in this section are from this document.
  11. Wolfe to Cremin, 28 September 1962, NAI, DT, S.6022 B/62.

Big Pimping: More on Uses of History in Tabletop RPGs

I won’t make a habit of poking my own website every time I post something at Play The Past, but I figure for this, what the hell (the intro to this series was in December, so peeps might need a reminder, I say…). And hey, I haven’t posted here in a while, so content is good.

I have a new post up in my Historical Hit Points series at Play The Past, which sketches out a rough framework for how I will be analyzing the uses of history and cultural heritage in various RPGs during the rest of the series (however long it runs). You can read the post by following the link below:

Capsule Review: THE CRIMEAN WAR by Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes. The Crimean War: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011. vii + 576 pp. Bibliography, Index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8050-7460-4.

Prior to picking up this book, I had only two cursory impressions of the work of Orlando Figes. The first came from having to peruse a previous book of his — A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (1998) — for my doctoral comprehensive examinations back in 2001-2002. As is the nature of a comp experience, I now remember next to nothing about that book, but I am sure I have notes on it in a box somewhere. The second impression came from the 2010 controversy Figes found himself embroiled in over his writing anonymous reviews on criticizing the work of fellow Russian historians while talking up his own books. As such, in deciding to read Figes’ newest book on the Crimean War, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

The Crimean War is an excellent narrative treatment of a mid-19th century war between Tzarist Russia on one side and Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire on the other that is, as Figes claims, “a relatively minor war…almost forgotten” today.1 However, the book does not focus merely on the war itself, which took place between 1853 and 1856, but also explores how the conflict fit into the wider context of European political and diplomatic history both before and after the war. This is a key strength of the book. In developing this wider analysis, Figes relies upon a broader primary source base than most English language treatments of the war, drawing extensively from Russian, French, and Ottoman sources to provide a more comprehensive examination of the main combatants and why they became involved in the conflict. For instance, Figes spends considerable time at the beginning of the book describing the longstanding religious turmoil between Orthodox Russia and the Islamic Ottomans that was a major factor in the war’s outbreak. This was an aspect of the conflict I had not previous been cognizant of; that is to say, I had not particularly considered the Crimean War a religious war, instead focusing on the geopolitical issues surrounding Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Dardanelles straits. Thanks to Figes’ book, I can now see why this was a limited view of the conflict.

The other key strength of the book is the attention Figes gives to the experiences of the soldiers fighting and suffering during the war. The chapters dealing with the siege of Sevastopol provide a grim overview of the conditions soldiers fought and lived through. Reading this, one is struck by how much this war was a precursor to the abhorrent and nihilistic carnage of the Western Front during the First World War. And that, ultimately, is Figes’ wider point.

Overall, Figes is attempting to reframe our understanding of the war, making the argument that the Crimean War reflects a key transition point between the older, aristocratic and Napoleonic styles of war fought in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the newer, more modern and destructive industrial wars of the 20th century. As Figes argues in the introduction, “This was the first ‘total war, a nineteenth-century version of the wars of our own age, involving civilians and humanitarian crises.”2 While it has become almost de rigueur lately for historians to claim a particular war was the “first total war” (for a relatively recent example, check out David A. Bell’s The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It), Figes makes a strong case for the importance of the Crimean War as a key transition toward modern warfare. Scholars and educators of modern European history will find much of value in this book.


  1. Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011), xviii
  2. Ibid., xix.

My AHA 2012 Debrief: Sunshine in the Windy City

An Anchorman T-Shirt from Urban Outfitters

I think this should be the conference t-shirt for AHA 2013 next year in New Orleans. Let's make this happen!

This past week, I spent several days in Chicago, Illinois, attending the American Historical Association’s 2012 annual conference. Normally I would have blogged about this throughout the experience, but the infinite universe or the Elder Gods or rogue bacteria decided to inflict upon me a dental issue of excruciating pain just as the conference started. It took tremendous willpower and a shitload of OTC drugs to make it through the weekend. Now that I have obtained more powerful drugs (to help me last until I can hit the dentist later this week), I wanted to get my thoughts down about my experience in Chicago. I’m going to do this in a capsule digest form, and, as is typical of me, it’s focused mainly on me, me, me.

Before starting, how about that weather? Holy shit, compared to the blizzard that was Boston last year, the weather in Chicago this year was spectacular — 50+ degrees in the beginning of January! I officially declare this should be the case every year. Make it so, Global Climate Change.


Beyond the AHA’s stated conference theme of “Communities and Networks,” I think it was pretty clear that digital history/humanities was the other key theme that ran throughout the whole weekend, exemplified by the first time inclusion of a THATCamp unconference at the AHA on Thursday. For those not in the know, THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is an unconference managed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which has spawned dozens and dozens of regional THATCamps all over the world in the last three-four years. The goal of these unconferences is to reject the staid model of static, one-way paper delivery that bogs down many an academic conference in favor of decentered, hands-on activities and dialogue between scholars in the humanities and technologists. The experience is really unlike any conference I’ve attended before.

This was my second shot at attending a THATCamp, having gotten my feet wet at the 2011 Great Lakes THATCamp run by the indefatigable Ethan Watrall at Michigan State University (an experience I wrote about previously here: “Coders and Girl Geeks and Luddites, Oh My: Great Lakes THATCamp 2011″). I have to be honest in saying that I was not as enamored with the experience as I was at the Great Lakes THATCamp last year. It was a combination of factors really. The starting schedule scrum was less tolerable, seeming to drag on forever and suffering from Academic Me-ism (academics do love the sound of their own voice, present company included). Some of the suggested topics were the usual mix of interesting and the not-so-interesting (to me), but the balance seemed tilted more toward not-so-interesting. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a t-shirt (I wanted a t-shirt, damn it!). Ultimately, it was my dental issues that ruined the experience for me; I even had to leave the proceedings halfway through to do some triage on my mouth.

Enough whiny bitching, what did I find valuable about it? I was able to attend one session, a workshop on grant-writing strategies led by Jen Serventi and Josh Sternfeld of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which was informational and useful as I contemplate how to fund all the projects I want to do. You can find some scattered and rough notes from the session here. I was particularly annoyed that in leaving I wasn’t able to catch the workshop on teaching digital history by Jeff McClurken of the University of Mary Washington (it was the whole reason I registered to go to the AHA THATCamp), but Professor McClurken did post the schedule and links from his workshop on his blog, so I’m grateful for that.

All in all, I’m not ready to give up on THATCamps by any means, just ones where I’m delirious and in pain. Bring on Great Lakes 2012.

Live-Tweeting Fun

When I wasn’t struggling with my own dental issues, I did find some time to attend a few regular conference panels and live-tweet them. The first was a session on Friday entitled “Successfully Teaching History in the Online Environment: Experiences, Tips, and Thoughts.” The points raised during this session nicely jived with what I have seen in my own online courses, but also offered some useful suggestions for how to improve my rather pedestrian online efforts (something I hope to address during 2012, when I have the time). For ease of archiving, I used Storify to collect and order my tweets during the session:

The second panel I attended was Saturday morning, entitled “Presenting Historical Research Through Digital Media” and included a couple of my friends (Drs. Lemont Dobson and Katrina Gulliver). I also used Storify on this panel as well, which had a lot of interesting bits of information on finding new ways to communicate historical stories to the public effectively and engagingly:

Twitterstorians To The Max

Twitterstorians drinking in a bar

Surreptitiously snapped a pic of Twitterstorians in their natural habitat during the AHA.

On Friday night, the Twitterstorians had a drink up at a local cocktail bar (The Drawing Room). As usual, it was a raucous good time, made even more so by me bringing my lovely wife Andrea, who immediately made it her mission to talk to every single person at the drink-up (which she did) and to touch Patrick Murray John’s “gorgeous Van Halen hair” (which she also did). On the other hand, I spent most of the time sucking on ice cubes to numb my mouth on the edge of the proceedings. Nevertheless, I was able to make the new acquaintance of a number of Twitterstorians (some more briefly than others), so cheers to @conservadora, @cap_and_gown, @maureenogle, @cliotropic, @raherrmann, and @dmcconeghy. It was lovely to meet you all (and my apologies to anyone I forgot; drugs will do that).

Book Buying Isn’t Dead Yet

My favorite part of the AHA is always the book stalls in the main exhibit hall. As a scholar, I have that wonderful disease where I buy books, books, and more books; promptly take them home and forget to read them; and then go buy more books, whereupon the cycle repeats itself ad nauseum. This year I consciously tried to maintain some discipline and not buy tons of books. I was relatively successful; I only bought four.

Carthage book cover

Every time you read this book, God kills an ancient civilization.

To indulge my ancient history fetish, I bought two cheap books from the Penguin booth. I love their $10 hardcovers and $5 paperbacks at the conference, much better than some who try to give you only the illusion of a deal (I’m looking at you, Ashgate, with your 50% off a $100 book). Anyway, the books were Richard Miles’ Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Not being an ancient historian but often finding myself teaching the ancient world history course, I’m always looking for ways to build my knowledge about the ancient past and the scholarship that underpins it, to better communicate that to my students. These should do nicely.

I also picked up Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State, which tickles my urban and spatial history funny bone, and also a book for my wife, The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle, and a bunch of others. Being a poet, my wife has a lifelong fascination with the Beats, so when I saw this, I knew I had to get it for her.

And that’s it. Amazing, isn’t it? Normally I walk away from this conference wondering what clothes I need to ditch in order to fit all my books in my luggage. Restraint, thy name is poverty.


Other than that, the rest of my conference experience was trying to eat through jaw pain at all the cool restaurants we stumbled upon; doing a little retail therapy on Saturday (including my annual conference comic book shop excursion, this time hitting Graham Cracker Comics’ Chicago Loop location just off Michigan Ave south of the Chicago River); and playing “Historian or Homeless” while wandering around the conference hotels.

Next year’s conference will be in New Orleans, Louisiana, so that should be a kick ass time as well – minus the dental torture hopefully.

Big Pimping: New at Play the Past…Me!

After getting my feet wet by writing my guest post on “Experimenting with Playful Historical Thinking in the Classroom” last September, I agreed a few weeks ago to join Play the Past, a group blog exploring the intersection of cultural heritage and meaningful play, as a regular author. This should be a lot of fun and get me going again on some sustained writing.

At least initially, I will be focusing on cultural heritage in tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, to be somewhat twee, I have branded the series of posts I will be writing as Historical Hit Points. The introductory post to this free-form series dropped today, and you can find it here: “Historical Hit Points: An Introduction of Sorts“. Go check it out and tell me what you think, either here or over there at Play the Past.