The head of the Irish Government broke into tears as he made an historic and emotionally-charged state apology to survivors of the Magdalene laundries.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny received a standing ovation in parliament after he described the Catholic-run workhouses as the “nation’s shame” and accepted the state’s direct involvement.
“I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the state, the Government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry,” Mr Kenny said.
Twenty women who were locked up in one of the laundries watched with bated breath from the public gallery.
They held hands tightly and wept as the Taoiseach made his tearful apology.
Maureen Sullivan, who was 12 when she was sent to a Magdalene laundry when her father died, said Mr Kenny had given survivors their lives back.
“He didn’t hold back on anything,” Ms Sullivan said.
“He really did us proud. Now we can go on with our lives and we know that we’ve got an apology, and he’s taken responsibility. It’s just fantastic.”
In unprecedented scenes of emotion during the eagerly-awaited state apology, Mr Kenny outlined plans to compensate the survivors.
“As a society, for many years we failed you,” he said.
“We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.
“This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”
The Government has appointed president of the Law Reform Commission Judge John Quirke to take a three-month review and make recommendations on payments to surviving women.
Mr Kenny said payments would be made with other support, including medical cards, psychological and counselling services, and other welfare needs.
He confirmed the Government would set up a compensation fund for women, based on the judge’s recommendations.
The state apology follows the publication of a report from former senator Martin McAleese, which revealed that the state was responsible for 24% of all admissions to the laundries - where girls as young as 11 were forced to work unpaid.
The inquiry found that 10,000 women were incarcerated in the workhouses, run by nuns from four religious orders for a myriad of reasons - from petty crime to poverty, disability or pregnancy outside marriage.
The last laundry closed in 1996, at Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin’s north inner city.
Survivor Ms Sullivan said the Taoiseach’s apology removed the stigma attached to all those detained in the Magdalene laundries, who were often considered “fallen women”.
“I’m proud now of the leader of our country. I can say that for the first time,” she added.
“I was never proud of anything in Ireland until today. He did the whole country proud and we re-wrote history this evening.”
The Government has outlined the terms of reference Mr Justice Quirke will use to set up the compensation scheme.
Payments will be made to women who were admitted and worked in the laundries, as well as those detained in similar institutions that were classed as training units.
The judge will consider relevant criteria during the three-month review period, including labour undertaken at the workhouses.
He will also examine how best to establish an ex-gratia fund “in an effective and timely manner” that ensures the women benefit of the money - and that it is not directed at legal fees or expenses.
Mr Justice Quirke has also been asked to consider how the Government might best provide other supports as part of the scheme, including health services such as medical cards, mental health services and counselling services and other welfare needs.
The compensation will have no impact on the women’s social welfare payments and tax liabilities, according to the terms of reference.
And survivors living outside Ireland will receive compensation. The judge will ensure payments to those living in the UK do not affect their existing entitlements and benefits.