A quick note for those commenting on the fears, or hopes, of wider society in 1969 – before the history that followed had unfurled. And it’s also worth mentioning the contemporaneous agitation and the subsequent co-option of “the sudden mood of the Catholic masses” by “the tiny Republican movement of the time”. Even, and perhaps particularly, when it comes to relatively recent history Stephen Fry’s comments are pertinent.
In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway … knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: Wilkes and Liberty! or, indeed, cried: Death to Wilkes!, if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.