Catholic leader says Vatican needs reality check after resounding poll backs gay marriage.

A top Irish Catholic leader said the Church needs a "reality check" as the predominantly Catholic nation voted to approve gay marriage.

"I think the Church needs to do a reality check right across the board ... Have we drifted away completely from young people?" Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, told national broadcaster RTE.

"It's a social revolution that didn't begin today," said Martin, who voted 'No', arguing that gay rights should be respected "without changing the definition of marriage".

"There's a big challenge to see how we get across the message of the Church. We're becoming a Church for the like-minded and a safe space rather than the Church that Pope Francis is talking about that is reaching out."

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Gay rights campaigners hailed a "historic watershed" for Ireland.

Rory O'Neill, known by the Drag persona Panti, celebrates with yes supporters at Dublin Castle, Ireland. Photo / AP
Rory O'Neill, known by the Drag persona Panti, celebrates with yes supporters at Dublin Castle, Ireland. Photo / AP

In the first endorsement of gay marriage via a national referendum, the Republic's population of five million voted 'Yes' by a clear majority. Final results showed a 62 per cent vote in favour and 38 per cent against. More than 1.2 million backed the 'Yes' side to less than 750,000 voting 'No'. Only one of Ireland's 43 constituencies recorded a narrow 'No' majority, Roscommon-South Leitrim in the boggy midlands.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott reacted to the result by all but ruling out holding a referendum on same-sex marriage, saying Parliament will deal with the matter if it's brought to a vote again. Abbott said referendums in Australia were reserved for approving constitutional changes. He recommitted to letting the Coalition party room decide whether MPs would get a free vote on the matter should any legislation get to that point.

Yes supporters celebrate. Photo / AP
Yes supporters celebrate. Photo / AP

The Catholic Church once controlled virtually every aspect of Irish life but its clout has been vastly reduced by the impact of secularisation and a wave of child sex abuse scandals that discredited the clergy. Ireland has followed a more secular narrative in recent years, highlighted by Prime Minister Enda Kenny's scathing attack in 2011 on the Vatican's handling of clerical child abuse. Its inability to properly deal with the issue showed "the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism" of the culture at the Vatican, he said then.

Attendance at masses has dropped sharply in recent decades, though 84.2 per cent of the population still identified as Catholic in the last census in 2011. Despite their opposition to the referendum, bishops framed their arguments in a conciliatory manner, admitting that gay and lesbian people were treated in a harsh way by the church in the past. It follows similar comments from Pope Francis, who posed the question, "Who am I to judge?" when asked his views on homosexuality. He has since repeated his opposition to same-sex marriages.

The culmination of what the 'Yes' camp described as a four-decade struggle for equality under the law saw thousands of campaigners celebrate in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, many waving rainbow flags. The turnout for the vote was high at 61 per cent.

Fred Schelbaum, 48, standing with his civil partner, Feargal Scott, 43, said he intended to marry. "Up to now a lot of gay people felt they were tolerated in Ireland. Now we know that it's much more than that."

The move, which will give Irish gays the same right accorded last year to those in Britain, represents a huge change in social attitudes in a land once seen as one of the most socially conservative in western Europe. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in Ireland only in 1993, and a vote on divorce in 1995 was passed only by a 51 per cent majority.

However, 'Yes' campaigners say it also shows how Ireland has become a more open-looking country in the past two decades, with the "Celtic Tiger" throwing off the social shackles that once held it back.

A yes supporter waits at Dublin castle for the final result. Photo / AP
A yes supporter waits at Dublin castle for the final result. Photo / AP

"Ten years ago Ireland was still a very dark place," said Pat Carey, a former government minister who waited until his late 60s to open up about being gay. "I think the young people of Ireland have grabbed this country by the neck and it's unrecognisable from what it was 10 years ago."

Crowds at Dublin Castle cheered as a succession of prominent Irish homosexuals appeared on the square, part of a gay celebrity scene that would have not have existed a generation ago. They included Senator David Norris, 71, a veteran homosexual campaigner who lobbied for the 1993 decriminalisation of gay sex, and Rory O'Neill, whose drag queen character became the face of the campaign. In a symbol of how Ireland's political class has embraced the gay cause, Kenny visited O'Neill's gay bar in January to show his backing for the 'Yes' camp.

"The future for young LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] people in this country is incredible," O'Neill said. "I'm just glad to be here on the day this Ireland came into being." As well as Kenny's endorsement, the 'Yes' vote was backed by a raft of famous Irish names, including Bono and Sinead O'Connor.

Irish Senator Katherine Zappone, right, and partner Ann Louise Gilligan. Photo / AP
Irish Senator Katherine Zappone, right, and partner Ann Louise Gilligan. Photo / AP

Many in the 'No' camp expressed anger that not one of the major political parties had come out in opposition to same-sex marriage. Instead, the political establishment unanimously backed the 'Yes' vote, and put party whips on their MPs not to speak out against it. For 'No' voters, that signalled that just as pro-gay sentiment was once deemed unmentionable in polite society, now it was the other way around. Alexander McKay, a 'No' campaigner with the Irish Society for Christian Civilisation, a Catholic group that views homosexuality as morally wrong, also complained that he and his fellow canvassers had suffered verbal and physical abuse. "Some of the people who were asking for us to respect their civil rights don't want to respect ours," he said last week.

The Irish Parliament is expected to draw up a bill for legislation this week with the first same-sex weddings to take place towards the end of the year.

- Telegraph Group Ltd, AFP, AAP, AP