A ban on ads for brothels has lifted the lid on an underworld of prostitution that thrives beneath the the 'craic' and the Georgian charm
his weekend, like every other, tourists will throng the city of Dublin. Some will be there for the pubs and clubs which have become prestige venues for stag and hen parties of drinkers from England. Others will savour the quiet elegance of the tree-lined Georgian squares or the streets whose names resonate with Ireland's rich literature and history. Still others will be there for the races, the theatre, or that most glorious of havens, a pub without piped music.

But almost all of them will leave with little idea of Dublin's other face, the long-established sleazy demi-monde laid bare last week when the city's listings magazine was banned for carrying advertisements for brothels. In Dublin faced a six-month ban for what the courts said was "obscenity". The magazine belatedly offered to stop publishing the lucrative ads, which cost eight times the normal rate and earned it upwards of pounds 500,000 a year.

Publisher Mike Hogan risked damnation and contempt proceedings by dropping the word "In" from the masthead and going on sale anyway. The ploy seemed a calculated attempt to cast himself as the victim of an infringement of press freedom. The focus suddenly shifted. Using verbatim accounts of a conversation between a reporter posing as a pimp and the magazine publishers, an Irish Sunday paper revealed that not only would the magazine advise brothel owners on how to get ads published, but would also help in recruiting prostitutes.

And this is not without its risks. A prostitute who was murdered recently had met clients through the magazine's ads. Belinda Pereira, 27, was beaten to death while working beside one of Dublin's best-known landmarks, the Ha'penny Bridge. The killing remains unsolved.

The mystery is why the ban has only now been imposed. Everybody knew massage parlours had been advertising in the magazine for close on two decades. Similar ads had appeared in at least two other Irish national publications. The ban was lifted on appeal and a judicial review will follow later this year.

A blind eye has been turned until now partly because ever since draconian mass-censorship affecting authors from Joyce to O'Casey and Steinbeck was ended in 1967, Irish governments have been loath to appear as illiberal medievalists. Though easily evaded by train trips to Belfast, bans were so comprehensive there could be no greater ignominy than being an "unbanned" author.

Questions in the Dail recently revealed several apparently overlooked books, still banned from the Sixties, including a 1956 work by Barbara Cartland, Marriage for Moderns, raising suspicions that no one actually wanted them unbanned.

Despite the 1995 introduction of divorce, the lifting of the 1935 ban on the sale of condoms, and booming sex shops, the old censorious regime lingered long. Imported women's magazines and newspapers were blocked if they contained advertisements for abortion clinics, Madonna's 1992 Sex book appeared briefly before it was banned. Allowing Playboy on to Irish shelves two years ago created a media sensation; it was followed by several other "top shelf" titles.

A marathon court battle over student union literature ended only when November 1992's referendum secured a right to abortion information, and to travel abroad for terminations. Politicians themselves remain terrified of reigniting the bitter abortion war; Bertie Ahern's government has deferred any legislation on the currently muddled law.

Official prudery became deeply rooted in post-independence Ireland, through such agencies as the Committee on Evil Literature - precursor of the Censorship of Publications Board, formed in 1929, which banned In Dublin. A Protestant librarian's appointment in Mayo in 1931 was frozen because she could not be allowed to decide which books went on the shelves for ordinary Catholics to pick up.

Paradoxically, ordinary Irish people, including the middle classes, are much less inhibited than the English, highlighting a long-simmering tension between traditional Irish Rabelaisian humour and art and 19th- and 20th- century Catholic moral doctrine. Both mainstream theatre and state broadcasting allow content more bawdy than would be generally acceptable on peak-hour BBC and ITV.

It emerged in court last week that the catalyst for the In Dublin ban was not the state but a private complaint from an unnamed citizen, suggesting that the Gardai had not until then been overly concerned by such blatant promotion of the vice trade. And this despite the fact that advertising brothels had been banned since 1994. To counter that notion the police last Tuesday ordered a new investigation into vice rackets and "those who knowingly advertise their services".

In Dublin's founder, John S Doyle, who left a decade ago, says the ads were originally accepted when an economic slump meant the title would not have survived without them. He claims today's buoyant advertising means the practice is no longer justifiable.

Ignoring the red-light business is nothing new in Dublin. In the 1980s, lack of serious penalties for pimps meant that the city's biggest operator of massage parlours was delighted if one of his brothels featured in tabloid stories, as it meant nationwide promotion. Some city madams would tip off tabloids about customers' antics to win free advertising.

One resident who sees the business close up - there is a massage parlour in his apartment block - says: "The magazine was central to the whole business. The girls know it is the only place to get clients and it is absolutely vital to them. Their biggest worry was getting pounds 400 together to pay for the ad every fortnight."

His working "neighbours" range from mothers with young children and an unemployed husband to business students funding their studies and a middle- ranking but low-paid civil servant working in the sex trade part-time. Prostitution has its own hierarchy, from the hotel and escort agency women at the top, through massage parlours, to those working the streets in the business areas around Fitzwilliam Square. Worst off are the heroin addicts and older women seeking customers in the rough Benburb Street area near Heuston station. Massage-parlour women look down on street workers. Their etiquette considers having an orgasm with a client to be "way off".

The director of a project funding training and finding alternative work for former prostitutes sees the women's plight as fundamentally economic. Frances Hamilton of the Rothuma Project says: "The women need opportunities and choices created for them, where they have alternatives to what they are involved in. I have never met one woman who has said she wanted to do this work."

The trade impinges only occasionally on ordinary life. A plumber working in a pub in a small alleyway off Wexford Street was once faced by a woman in full bondage gear rushing in a panic after her client suffered a heart attack next door. The punter, a Roman Catholic priest, suffered the double indignity of being pronounced dead at an address called "Protestant Row".

In November 1994, another priest expired in The Incognito gay club 100 yards away, where he was known simply as "Kevin". It emerged that two other priests were in the club at the time, enjoying facilities including a sauna and private cubicles. A colleague talking to an experienced prostitute in a nearby bar was dumbstruck when she pointed to a familiar face in British broadcasting appearing on the pub's television screen, proclaiming proudly "I done him".

All brothel visitors are vulnerable to the way a lifetime's pursuit of rank and status can evaporate in a moment. One affluent Dublin businessman went every Sunday to mass with his family before escaping for a pint in a bar in Ringsend, near Dublin port. From there he would disappear furtively with a local "brasser" before rejoining his family at home for Sunday lunch.

One weekend he collapsed and died in the act, and was hidden under the brothel bed while attempts were made to have him collected. Learning his whereabouts, his wife refused point blank to have the corpse back; he was reportedly buried in a pauper's grave.

Not long after, the same prostitute was spotted by female colleagues leaving the bar with another middle-aged man. As she reached the door, a plaintive nasal voice called out, audible to the whole pub: "Bring 'im back alive, Mary!"