The social revolution that has changed Irish society beyond recognition over the past 30 years was illuminated this week by a study of sexual practice and beliefs.

The study, commissioned by the Department of Health and carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council and the College of Surgeons in Ireland, involved interviews with 7500 people aged between 18 and 64 across the country.

It showed that in the three decades since contraception began to be legalised - it is still not free and the morning after pill remains banned - the percentage of people who think pre-marital sex is wrong has changed from 71 per cent in 1973 to 6 per cent now.

Over the same period the age at which men and women first have sex has dropped to 17, a five year fall for men and a six year one for women. Sixty-four per cent now think abortion is acceptable in some circumstances and 90 per cent think emergency contraception should be available over the counter. The study also showed a worrying increase in sexually transmitted disease - up by 243 per cent between 1993 and 2003. Despite this, 14 per cent of those surveyed said they would not use a condom on a first sexual encounter with a new partner. The cost of condoms was a factor. They are taxed as a luxury item and are therefore expensive.

The findings mirror other changes in Irish society, including a dramatic fall in church attendance and a relaxed, cosmopolitan, European lifestyle even outside Dublin, which is helping to attract Irish emigrants back home.