DUBLIN: Ireland looked to have voted in favour of gay marriage Saturday in a historic referendum which would see the largely Catholic country become the world’s first to make the change after a popular vote.
As the count took place, a leading “No” campaigner conceded defeat while several government ministers said they were confident of victory for the “Yes” side, which has been boosted by thousands of young Irish returning home from working abroad to vote.
The final results are expected sometime around 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) but some “Yes” campaigners were already toasting victory.
Outside the main counting center in Dublin, Grainne O’Grady, 44, and Pauline Tracey, 53, said the plan was to “celebrate, celebrate, celebrate.”
“I’m just so happy I could burst. We were voting on whether we were equal in our own country,” said O’Grady, wearing a “Yes Equality” T-shirt.
“It makes me so proud,” Tracey added. “It’s just been so emotional for everybody.”
Legalizing gay marriage would be a seismic change in Ireland, where the Catholic Church remains a powerful force, homosexuality was illegal until 1993 and abortion is banned except where the mother’s life is in danger.
One of the most prominent campaigners against gay marriage, David Quinn, said early tallies indicated that those in favor of gay marriage had secured a victory “roughly in the region of two to one”.
Quinn added on national broadcaster RTE that it was it was “obviously a very impressive victory for the ‘Yes’ side”.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who became Ireland’s first openly gay cabinet minister when he came out this year and is tipped as a future leader, said the “Yes” campaign had been a “social revolution”.
“It really is historic, we’re the first country in the world to vote for marriage equality by popular vote and to enshrine it in our constitution,” he told RTE.
The referendum has pitched traditionalists including the Catholic Church against those in favor of gay marriage, including Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a Catholic who told voters there was “nothing to fear” in a televised message on Wednesday night.
All Ireland’s main political parties supported amending the constitutional definition of marriage.
Gerry Adams, president of the socialist Sinn Fein opposition party, said Friday’s referendum brought the issues of “inclusion and equality to the fore”.
A string of Irish celebrities have also backed the “Yes” campaign including singers Bono and Sinead O’Connor plus actor Colin Farrell.
The Catholic Church campaigned strongly for a “No” vote, insisting marriage can only involve a man and woman, drawing support from many older and rural voters.
The majority of Irish people identify themselves as Catholic, but the Church’s influence has waned in recent years amid growing secularization and after a wave of child sex abuse scandals that badly discredited the hierarchy.
Around 3.2 million people were eligible to vote in Friday’s referendum, and reports suggest turnout was higher than expected.
Early tallies suggest that even rural areas such as Donegal had supported gay marriage, suggesting the scale of the victory could be large.
The issue has drawn intense interest on social media under the hashtag #MarRef and was the second most popular trending subject on Twitter Saturday.
Many young Irish voters had been posting selfies of themselves returning from overseas to vote in favor of gay marriage.
In a rare move, the government opened up the grounds of Dublin Castle, the historic, ceremonial former center of British power in Ireland, to the public so they could hear the official result announcement.
As the ballots were being counted, around 100 people gathered there, some with rainbow flags wrapped around their shoulders.
Karen Brady, 27, flew home to Ireland from Vancouver in Canada for the referendum.
“I voted with my parents — it was such a memorable and moving moment,” she said.
“I was nearly in tears because a few years ago, Ireland was not like that and my parents would not have accepted me. But Ireland has changed. It was the greatest moment, my parents standing beside me voting ‘Yes’.”
David Kelly, a 27-year-old waiter from Dublin, said the referendum had “taken over my life for the last few months”.
“I voted with my whole family and I burst into tears at the ballot box,” he said.
If the move is approved, Ireland would be the 19th country in the world to legalize gay marriage, and the 14th in Europe.
Across the border in Northern Ireland, gay marriage is banned even though it is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom.