DUBLIN — Voters went to the polls in Ireland Friday on whether to allow gay marriage in a referendum that has seen thousands of citizens travel home from overseas in order to take part.
The historic poll, in which the government and the Catholic Church have been on opposing sides, could make Ireland the first country in the world to adopt the policy by popular vote.
Polling stations closed at 10 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET). An official result is not expected until Saturday morning after what polling officers predicted to be a record turnout for a national referendum.
Airports and ferry terminals were busier then usual as many Irish living abroad returned to cast their vote, including some who traveled from Nairobi and San Francisco.
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Many shared their journey on social media using the #hometovote hashtag.
Among them were a group who took the train from London to the Welsh port of Holyhead and then a ship to Dublin in order to vote "yes" for equal marriage.
"This is an issue that effects all of us and will effect future generations of Irish people," said Eoin Gill. "I've come home For general elections before but they're nothing compared to this, this is the vote that will be remembered and we will all look back on this moment in years to come."
He added: "We all probably want to return and live in Ireland at some stage and we'd like it to be in better shape for us and for the children we may have, than when we left."
A ‘Yes’ vote would mark a transformation in the last country in Western Europe to decriminalize homosexuality just over two decades ago. Divorce was approved by a similar vote in 1995.
"My message to people is that if you believe in equality, do not be complacent, do not leave it to others," said Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a practicing Catholic who has spoken of his personal journey to become a leading advocate for gay marriage. "Say yes, yes to inclusion, yes to rights, yes to love, yes to equality. Take away those burdens for people and let them be who they are."
However, Evana Boyle, 'No' voter and spokeswoman for campaign group Mothers and Father Matter, said: "This isn't a vote about people's feelings. Marriage and the family are intrinsically linked. The family is founded on marriage and that's the fundamental natural unit of society."
Dozens of states recognize gay unions as do Brazil, France, New Zealand, Britain and other countries, but none have extended civil marriage to same-sex couples by way of a national referendum. Recent votes in Slovenia and Croatia were rejected.
Results will be closely watched for an urban/rural split among the three million registered voters.
“I think the days when bishops tell people how to vote is long since gone but we have constantly said this is not a simple thing," Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin told national broadcaster RTE in a rare interview. "Marriage isn't just about two people falling in love, marriage and family and children are all linked together and you can't tear them apart."
Reuters contributed to this report.