An investigation is underway into a 14-year-old African girl's miscarriage in an Irish hospital last year

New figures published by the Irish Central Statistics Office this week show that Irish women have the highest fertility rate in the European Union.

Even so, the new report notes that the Irish birthrates remain below the level needed to replace the population.

73,996 children were born in Ireland in 2008, a figure that was up 2,607 or 3.7% from 2007, and up a whopping 20,027 or 37.1% since 1998.

The average number of children per woman increased from 2.05 in 2007 to 2.07 in 2008. This is just below the optimum replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, a fertility rate that needs to be maintained in order to adequately replace the population in the absence of migration.

The Central Statistics Office also confirmed that the number of babies born in 2008 was the highest since 1980 when there were 74,064 births, the only year in the 20 century to have a higher birth rate.

Before that, the highest number of births was in 1892, when there were 74,029 births in the 26 counties.

The CSO also noted a significant shift in the age structure of fertility after 1993. Prior to 1993, the highest fertility rate was for women aged 25 to 29. After 1993, it shifted to the 30-34 age group.

The number of births outside marriage was 24,732 or 33.4%.