Dublin: The moment you leave the airport it hits you. On every pole on the road to Dublin's city center there's a sign that says Vote Yes or Vote No. Sometime there are three posters tied to one pole, after a turf war erupted between the two opposing sides.

The net result is that even a visiting Martian could tell that there is something major going on in Ireland this week.

The first person I see on a Dublin street, a middle aged woman waiting for her early morning bus, is wearing a pin that says “Tá,” the Irish word for Yes. I'm heartened by the sight of her, but then I remember that this is Dublin, and Dublin has had much more time to get used to the daily reality of gay people and gay lives.

Far out in the country, where any swerve from the mainstream is usually frowned upon, it's often another story.

Does rural Ireland have a mind to point that out to us all this Friday I wonder, or has the reality of having a gay son or daughter, an uncle or aunt, taught them the hard lessons it's taught everyone else? We'll know by Saturday night, but no one – and I mean no one - knows yet.

Later, walking around town in the altered state of transatlantic jet lag, I find myself being powerfully moved by the number of young people and – this is what gives me the lump in my throat – the number of elderly Irish women and men I see wearing Yes badges.

My teenage self would have responded very powerfully to the affirmation that these Yes pins represent. Because, whether or not people truly grasp how important they really are, what those pins are saying is 'We see you, We love you, You're welcome and You're equal.'

Because of that I have been buffeted by great waves of feeling walking around town today. I'm not the type who sniffles at the first sign of sentiment but for all the pointed back and forth of the referendum campaign itself, a great beauty has been born.

And I wonder if the Irish themselves realize just how carefully they’re being scrutinized by larger pro and anti forces abroad? Cultural conservatives worldwide see us a faltering jewel in the crown of would-be theocratic states, but they irresistibly want to give progressives a black eye. Meanwhile gay rights groups want to point to a nation that wrote equality into its constitution. Tech, financial and business leaders are eying us carefully. Who will prevail?

One thing is certain, I have never seen my countrymen look more determined or more purposeful. They know, even in their souls I think, that this vote will say who they are and what they stand for. I think they plan to get it right.

Walking around I don't see a single person wearing a No pin all afternoon. I know they're out there though. I grew up in the Ireland they once presided over and I know how resolved they are to win at any cost on Friday when the nation goes to the polls.

On Grafton Street around three in the afternoon I hear a Christian protestor shouting at the top of his voice. His tone is furious and it can it can be heard from one hundred yards.

“Disgrace, shame, sin!” he bellows, conveying his visceral disgust at what's being contemplated. “They will come to exterminate you!” he bellows at the crowd, who give him the wide berth Irish people give obvious cranks. “Beware of damnation!” he cries. He looks utterly enraged.

And his appearance reminds me that there's simply no doubting at this point that the No campaign's objection to marriage equality has its deepest roots in traditional bias or religious feeling. The Yes campaign must rely on a shared humanity. It's hard to know which of these aspects speaks louder to modern Ireland, a place where tradition is often reflexively adopted long past it's shelf life.

But it's on the streets that democracy is won and lost and on Dublin's street this afternoon I saw a young woman happily walking hand in hand with her girlfriend. The sight of them didn't cause comment or a single backward glance. They were left in peace; their day progressed without error. That's a profound change.

Earlier in the morning the Taoiseach (Ireland's Prime Minister) Enda Kenny appeared to campaign on the same Dublin street where the enraged Christian protester would stand later. He was joined by Tiernan Brady, policy director  of the Yes Equality LGBT rights organization, and more importantly – this is Ireland we're talking about – a Donegal man.

Brady grew up with deep roots in the Fianna Fail party machine, and he knows how the people in the conservative northwest think and vote. Although Fianna Fail has officially endorsed a Yes vote, many rural members have private reservations they will likely express in the privacy of the voting booth.

Living in places where an openly gay person is still seen as an event, they're simply less willing to make room for anything or anyone that varies from the norm yet, even if it's someone they know on a first name basis.

The thing that worries me most is how vitriolic the underside of this debate has become. On one of those distinctly green Irish post boxes this morning a handmade sticker read: “Children are the new fashion accessories – Vote No!”

The intent of the sticker is obvious, its point is to dehumanize gay people, to rob them of their humanity and turn them into threatening cartoons. It’s a lousy ploy that speaks to our basest selves.

It's very important to remember that most Irish people are much kinder than this I tell myself, but I worry for the vulnerable gay teens who are still closeted and and seeing themselves menaced and marked by this political – and deeply personal – demagoguery.

They haven't developed the kind of emotional callouses needed to withstand this level of frontal assault. For them – and if I'm honest, for me – the country seemed to be engaged in a kind of spiritual civil war this week.

You don't have to be gay to see the kind of cheap shots that are being been fired everywhere, but if you're young and gay you have a much higher chance of finding yourself directly in the line of fire this week.

I worry about what the resolve of both sides to win at any cost is costing the impressionable Irish young. But as someone famously said hundreds of years after about the outcome of the French revolution: it's still too early to tell.

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