The number of young Irish men being ordinated to the priesthood in Ireland has dropped below competing figures in England and Wales for the first time in living memory.

The plummeting number of vocations are a dramatic departure for a country that once used to export Catholic missionaries globally and provided Britain with a significant proportion of its priests.

New figures released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ireland this week show that just 16 men are due to start training for the priesthood this autumn, less than half the 39 that signed up for the priesthood last year.

In contrast, back in the 1980's Ireland would regularly draw more than 150 new recruits to the priesthood every year.

Ireland’s newfound recruitment problems will be a cause for concern in Rome since it has always been seen by the Vatican as a stronghold of Catholic faith in secular Europe.

Over the last two decades, the Irish Catholic church’s reputation has been damaged by a series of widespread child sex abuse scandals and by the revelations that senior church officials deliberately covered up the crimes of paedophiles priests.

This year there are a total of 99 men training for priesthood in Irish seminaries compared with 150 in England and Wales.

"The recent difficulties with Church scandals mean that those thinking tentatively about priesthood, are not going to be launching themselves forward," Father Patrick Rushe, National Coordinator of Diocesan Vocations Directors in Ireland he told the Irish press. "This has been a difficult year for the Church and is bound to have an effect on numbers."

But Father Rushe suggested that the numbers this year were a "blip" and should return to a more steady level of 25 or 26 new vocations in the years to come.

The true extent of the crisis was revealed in 2008 when the Irish church admitted that 160 priests had died that year with only nine new ordinations.

Figures for Irish nuns were even more dramatic, with the deaths of 228 nuns and only two taking final vows for service in religious life last year.