Ireland has begun counting ballots from its referendum to legalize homosexual marriage, and political observers say the first ballot boxes opened point to a victory for gay rights.

Observers from parties and pressure groups observed Saturday's count of votes from Friday's referendum, the first national vote on the issue held worldwide. All initial vote counts in Dublin and rural areas showed majorities voting to amend Ireland's constitution to permit gay marriage.

A government minister, Kevin Humphrey, is forecasting a landslide victory for the "yes" campaign. Fianna Fail party leader Michael Martin says it "looks like an emphatic win for the yes side."

A senior campaigner against gay marriage, John Murray of the Catholic think tank Iona Institute, says his side is bracing for likely defeat.