Catholic and deeply conservative, Ireland was long known as one of the toughest places in the Western world to be gay. Homosexuality was decriminalized here only in 1993, after years of pressure from European authorities. But now Ireland may be preparing for its coming-out party, with a referendum on 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 down 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. FULL REPORT