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Geographic Reference

The monastery in Armagh began to dominate the Irish church in the 6th century A.D.

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Monastery ruins
Monasteries, with their large population centers, were a key part of early Irish life.
By the middle of the 6th century, monasteries had become not only religious centers but also the cultural and economic bases of most Irish kingdoms. Far from the isolated, peaceful refuges we think of today, they were bustling population centers, wealthy and often involved in the dynastic wars that were a part of Irish life. Many monasteries had their own armies, and abbots frequently led them in battle against monasteries allied with rival kings.

In Europe's Dark Age following the fall of Rome, Christianity was confined to old Roman cities while pagan barbarian tribes set up new kingdoms among the ruins of the Empire. In Ireland's monasteries, scholarship and art flourished, so Ireland became the guardian of scholarship and theology for all Europe. Irish pilgrims brought Christianity and scholarship back to much of the Continent, and by the 8th century no European kingdom thought itself well served unless it had Irish scholars to advise the royal court. The rebirth of civilization in Europe grew on a foundation of Irish scholarship.

Tanderagee idol
Probably the representation of a Celtic god, this early pre-Christian stone sculpture is currently in the cathedral in Armagh.
Two forms of Christianity competed in Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries: an Irish monastic model, decentralized and quite secular with divorce accepted and priests likely to have families, versus a centralized Latin model based on the power of a Pope in Rome who now demanded celibacy from his priests. Rome would be the ultimate winner. As the Latin Church consolidated power, a so-called "reform" movement aimed to curb what it saw as excesses of the Irish church. Ireland became the target of Roman propaganda, labeled an island of barbarians and a center of immoral pagan practices.

In the 12th Century A.D., politics and religion came together to force religious and political change in Ireland. Dermot MacMurrough, the ousted King of Leinster, asked England's King Henry II for help in regaining his kingdom. With the consent of an English Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, Anglo-Normans first invaded Ireland in 1167. It was the beginning of the end for a uniquely Irish Church.