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.

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