Female Irish detectives posed as prostitutes in an unprecedented sting operation that saw a total of 21 man convicted of soliciting 'ladies of the night'.

The US-style operation, one of the first on this scale for the Gardaí, took place over almost a month in Limerick city centre and its environs, ultimately bagging the cops a total of 21 convictions before Limerick District Court, all of whom were directed to make a donation to a local charity by the judge.

The men, most of whom were living locally, also had their names and addresses published in an embarrassing 'name and shame' sequitur to the report carried by a local Limerick newspaper.

Many of the men were in their sixties, although the youngest caught was only 23. All pled guilty to the charge of soliciting prostitutes.

The highlight of the trial, no doubt, was the moment when one of the convicted summoned the courage to ask Judge Eamon O'Brien for free legal aid. The judge's response: “If you can afford a lady of the night, you can afford a solicitor."

The remarkable operation took place in the city centre over a number of weeks and involved two undercover female detectives embedding themselves in well-known prostitution hotspots in the city center.

Prostitution has remained a problem in Limerick for some time, and the latest Garda effort is just one of many to crack down on the trade before it becomes even more widespread.

Lobbying groups such as Doras Luiminí claim that Ireland has become a major venue for human trafficking, intimately bound up with the sex trade, and claim that thousands of women, many of Eastern European, are living in effective imprisonment in Ireland.

A similar sting operation, minus the covert element, took place in Cork last year where a number of brothels that had been operating in Cork were busted in a citywide crackdown.

Local prostitution linchpin Tony Linnane was found to have set up an elaborate recording system at one of his locales operating just metres from a popular nightclub in the city centre, and close to the South Mall, Cork's financial and insurance thoroughfare.

The fear spread like contagion to the professional classes on the Mall, many of whom must have been extremely thankful that the prosecution took place in camera, where the prying eyes of journalists and locals alike could not see who had been literally caught with their pants down.

Although using brothels as a patron is not illegal under Irish law, soliciting prostitutes in the public domain, operating them, or deriving criminal proceeds from them, are.

Many are reportedly turning to online ventures such as the very notorious Escort Ireland to use prostitutes.

Girls are advertised as 'escorts' and go to great lengths to explicitly say they offer sexual services, but in reality are prostitues.