Turnout has been reported to be high in Ireland's referendum on whether same-sex marriage should become legal, a vote which has exposed deep divisions in the traditionally Catholic nation.

State broadcaster RTE said on Friday that polling stations were recording a higher turnout than usual for referendums, with voting levels in some areas predicted to top 60 percent, more comparable with that witnessed at general elections.

Voters had until 10pm (21:00 GMT) Friday to cast their ballots, with the result expected on Saturday afternoon.

The referendum could make the once deeply Catholic country the first in the world to adopt the policy by popular vote.

The reform is backed by all major political parties, championed by big employers and endorsed by celebrities. Polls indicate that Friday's referendum will be passed by a margin of as much as two-to-one. 

Opponents, including noticeably low-key church leaders, have raised concerns over parenthood and surrogacy rights for gay couples. 

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."

Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993.

Gay couples are currently allowed to sign civil partnerships.

'Living in the shadows'

"The stories that I've heard over the last number of years from ordinary people, in ordinary jobs, this burden and pressure that's been on them, living in the shadows - that can be removed on Friday by voting 'Yes'," Prime Minister Enda Kenny said this week.

Referendums in Croatia and Slovenia both resulted in "No" votes, although in Slovenia, parliament went ahead and approved gay marriage in March.

"We are saying here, in a world first, that the people of Ireland can extend the right of civil marriage to all our citizens," Kenny said.

Currently there are 18 countries who have legalised gay marriage, most of them in Europe but also including South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Argentina.

Across the border in Northern Ireland, gay marriage is banned even though it is legal in the rest of Britain.

Pollsters say a ratification may hinge on whether younger voters, tens of thousands of whom have registered to vote in recent months, actually turn up to cast their ballot.

The results will also be closely watched for 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.

Source: Agencies