Voters are being asked whether to add an article to the constitution saying: "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex."

Polling stations will close at 2100 GMT and the result is expected on Saturday.

If the referendum is passed and once an ensuing law to support it is approved, Ireland would become the 19th country in the world and the 14th in Europe to legalise gay marriage.

The result may depend on whether younger voters, tens of thousands of whom registered as the campaign gathered momentum,
actually turn out to cast their ballots.

Results, which will be declared on Saturday, may also reveal an urban/rural split. When voters legalised divorce by a razor thin majority in 1995, only five of the 30 constituencies outside Dublin backed the proposal.

Gay marriage is backed by all political parties, championed by big employers and endorsed by celebrities, all hoping it will mark a transformation in a country that was long regarded as one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.

The Catholic Church, whose doctrine teaches that homosexuality is a sin, has mainly limited its 'No' campaigning to sermons to its remaining flock, a marked contrast with active public opposition to similar moves in France and elsewhere.

Allowing gay couples to wed would be a seismic change in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993 and where abortion remains illegal except when the mother's life is in danger.

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