DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said on Sunday that Ireland must seize its opportunity to become the first country to approve same-sex marriage in a popular vote when it holds a referendum on the issue on Friday.
A series of polls indicated on Saturday that voters are set to back the introduction of gay marriage by a margin of as much as two-to-one.
"There is a reservoir of emotion in there that needs to be lanced," Kenny told the Sunday Independent newspaper. "If somebody says: 'I am a gay person and I want to get married' - is their own family going to deny them that? Are our own fellow citizens going to deny them that?"
"It's an opportunity that won't come again," he said.
Long considered one of the most conservative countries in Western Europe where homosexuality was illegal until two decades ago, support for gay rights has surged in Ireland as the power of the Catholic Church collapsed in the wake of child abuse scandals.
Kenny, a practicing Catholic who was widely praised for appearing at a prominent gay bar last year, said he was reticent about extending civil marriage to same-sex couples when Ireland recognized the legal rights of same-sex couples for the first time in 2009, but has since changed his mind.
"My view of them now, what they do, the way they interact, is it any business of mine that they love and honor who they do?" Kenny, 64, said.
"For me, personally, it's been a journey. Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn't have had the sort of level of understanding of the extent of the involvement in our community of people who are gay... The world has changed utterly."
Campaigners against gay marriage have made some gains after warning that it might lead to an increase in adoptions and surrogate births involving gay couples. Yes campaigners reject the claims.
The vote, backed by all political parties, has led to a number of high profile figures announcing publicly that they are gay, including the country's health minister and a prominent television journalist.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)