Voters in once staunchly Catholic Ireland voted on whether to legalize same-sex marriage Friday in what the government's equality minister called "a referendum like no other."

Voting began at 7 a.m. local time and continued until 10 p.m. The results will be announced on Saturday.

Polls leading up to the vote suggested that the Yes side was in the lead, but in the last few days that gap appears to have narrowed, said CBC's Nahlah Ayed.

"It really is unclear," she said 

As with previous Irish votes, such as joining the European Union, banning abortion and legalizing divorce, the issue of same-sex marriage legality is drawing people to the polls in droves. Electoral officers reported stronger-than-usual turnout at many stations in schools, church halls and pubs across the nation of 3.2 million registered voters.

At St. John Bosco school in Dublin, a steady stream of voters came to cast their ballot, many of whom remarked the turnout appears highest of any poll in memory. While many of the voters in the area are older and more likely to vote No, there were also Yes supporters.

"It's a matter of justice really," said Marion McCaffrey. "I think for too long we have been dominated by the Catholic view of that's why I voted Yes."

The government's minister for equality, Aodhan O Riordain, cast his "yes" ballot and declared it the most important vote of his life. He took heart from signs of a strong turnout, since involvement by young, first-time voters was considered key for the measure to pass.

"This is a referendum like no other," O Riordain, 38, said in an AP interview. "There's a buzz and an anticipation of this like I've never seen before."

Expats go home to vote

On the streets of Dublin, Liz McDermott, a member of a group called Mothers and Fathers Matter, spent hours debating Yes side supporters while she canvassed for the No side.

"I do recognize this is a kind of old-fashioned perspective on things," McDermott told Ayed.
"It's my democratic right to be here and to speak my mind. I feel actually more than that. It's not my democratic right, it's actually my duty," she said.

"Parenthood is so important. It's so important we get it right. It's so important we take marriage seriously."

Ireland Senator Katherine Zappone

Irish Senator Katherine Zappone, who married her same-sex partner in Vancouver in 2003, is a key supporter of the campaign to legalize gay marriage in Ireland. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Irish Senator Katherine Zappone is one of the most prominent Yes supporters. She got married to her same-sex spouse in Vancouver in 2003. That marriage will be recognized as legal in Ireland if the Yes side wins, she said.

"It's like we were outcasts, exiled," Zappone told the CBC's Ayed. "We had to go outside the country in order to access what we considered to be our fundamental human right."

"The majority will demonstrate what I believe is at the heart of what it means to be Irish: their fairness, their compassion, their generosity," she said. "But they are freedom fighters!  We are coming up [in 2016] to 100 years of celebrating the birth of our republic... and that's so much what it means to be Irish."

On Twitter, travellers documented their disparate journeys home to Ireland via London, New York, Bangkok and Nairobi, often under the hashtags #HomeToVote or, for those in neighbouring Britain, #GetTheBoatToVote. One posted a picture on a London-to-Wales train with travellers donning the rainbow colours and balloons of the gay rights movement.

with files from The Associated Press