After an initially dismissive response to the McAleese report on the Magdalene laundries, 26-County Taoiseach Enda Kenny has fully apologised to those who were incarcerated in the unofficial women’s prisons.
In an emotional speech tonight, Kenny described the church-run institutions as “a national shame”.
Most significantly for the Magdelene victims, he offered his “full and heartfelt apologies”.
The u-turn came after a period of two weeks in which survivors were forced to come forward to explain the reality of their suffering to Kenny and other government officials.
The laundries operated with the support of state authorties and religious orders, but saw women of all ages imprisoned, enslaved, and denied even a basic education or a knowledge of their own identity and background.
In the parliamentary debate on the McAleese report, Mr Kenny said the Magdalene laundries were reserved for what was offensively called “fallen women”.
He admitted that State itself was directly involved in over a quarter of all admissions to the Magdalene Laundries, and that the women and girls had been wholly blameless.
“The reality is.. that for 90 years.. Ireland subjected these women and their experience.. to a profound and studied indifference,” Mr Kenny said.
More than 10,000 women and girls entered the 10 laundries between 1922 and 1996, with an average age of 23. One in ten of them died in the laundries, many from injuries suffered in the course of their back-breaking toil or in unexplained circumstances.
After an international outcry over the government’s initial response, Kenny’s statement tonight was strongly welcomed by the Magdelene groups and their supporters.
Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said Kenny’s admissions and apology marked the real start of the Magdalene survivors’ campaign for justice and redress. “My thoughts are with the women today”, she said.
Independent councillor Mannix Flynn, speaking at a candle-lit vigil which was held in solidarity with the women outside Leinster House, said the laundries represented “a regime of torture and a regime of slavery throughout this country.”
He said there were “many more” such scandals to be uncovered. He added that “we must remember the children out there still looking for their mothers.”
Mr Flynn was referring to the practise whereby some religious orders passed children borne by the so-called “fallen women” to adoptive families, both nationally and internationally.
Richard Boyd Barrett of People before Profit said that if the Taoiseach’s apology was to have meaning and substance, the government “have to act immediately and give them the redress they are asking for.”
There is be a three-month period of assessment for assisting the survivors, the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter confirmed tonight.
Spokeswoman for Justice for Magdalenes Claire McGettrick said “these women are our sisters, our mothers, grandmothers, our neighbours and our friends.”
“For decades they have walked a lonely road,” she said.