DUBLIN — Catholic and deeply conservative, Ireland was long known as one of the toughest places in the Western world to be gay. Homosexuality was only decriminalized here in 1993, after years of pressure from European authorities.

But now Ireland may be preparing for its coming-out party, with a referendum Friday that could make it the world’s first country to approve same-sex marriage in a popular vote.

That such a momentous event in the gay rights struggle could happen here, of all places, reflects the breathtaking social change that has swept Ireland in recent years and the weakening hold of the scandal-scarred Catholic Church.

The church has come out firmly against the referendum. But in a country where priests once held unquestioned sway and where 85 percent of the nation still identifies as Catholic, a large majority of Ireland appears ready to defy church teachings and vote to give same-sex partners the same right to marry as heterosexual couples.

“It’s a different era,” said Pat Carey, a former government minister who came out as gay in February, at age 67, and is campaigning for a yes vote. “There’s a whole new demographic out there that has a vision of an Ireland that’s kinder, more inclusive and more tolerant.”

The change to Ireland’s constitution could reverberate well beyond this island nation’s borders at a time when other countries, the United States among them, are wrestling with the issue in legislation and in the courts.

Unlike in the United States, where nine Supreme Court justices will soon give their ruling, Ireland has placed the choice in the hands of its 4.5 million people – leading to a passionate and colorful campaign that has made a once-taboo subject the focus of a national debate.

Supporters say a yes vote could inspire popular movements in other countries where same-sex rights had once seemed inconceivable.

“It will show that if this society can change in that way – so quickly, so radically – then other places, places that seem very conservative at the moment, that they can also change,” said Colm Toibin, one of Ireland’s foremost writers, who left the country as a young man in part because of rampant homophobia. “It would be an example to the world.”

But to referendum opponents, a yes vote would be a deeply unsettling symbol of a society transformed beyond recognition. Abortion is still prohibited in Ireland. But same-sex marriage is seen by traditionalists as perhaps the ultimate concession to cultural relativism in a country where divorce was illegal and the sale of condoms was tightly regulated until the mid-1990s.

“We’re no longer Catholic Ireland,” said Evana Boyle, an organizer of Mothers and Fathers Matter, a group campaigning for a no vote. “We’re changing the essence of an institution that has been known as one man and one woman since the beginning of time.”

Boyle’s group has plastered this city, and much of the country, with posters showing opposite-sex parents kissing a cherub-faced baby along with the words “Don’t deny a child the right to a mother & a father. Vote No.”

Boyle, a lawyer and a mother of four, said her side is counting on a backlash to a new era in which homosexuality has become “normalized.” When even Catholic schools plan lessons around LGBT Awareness Week, she said, she needs to be on guard against attempts to indoctrinate her own children. “The idea of having two dads, they just go ‘Eww, that’s not right,’ ” she said.

But the no side’s message that defeat would be beneficial for kids is undermined by the near-unanimity of child welfare organizations in supporting the referendum’s passage. Beyond the Catholic Church, there is, in fact, little opposition to the measure within the Irish establishment.

The government backs a yes vote, as do all the significant political parties, the major media organizations, unions and business groups. The yes campaign has also won support from sports stars and even some dissident clerics. In January, a Dublin priest announced during a Saturday night Mass that he supported the referendum and that he is gay. His congregants gave him a standing ovation.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.