DUBLIN -- Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered an unreserved state apology on Tuesday over Ireland's failure to protect thousands of young women and girls consigned to virtual slavery in the so-called "Magdalene laundries" between 1922 and 1996.
In a long-awaited, emotional parliamentary address, Mr. Kenny said women "who are and always were wholly blameless" not only deserved a formal apology for what they had suffered but also counseling and financial support.
On behalf of the Ireland government and citizens, he apologized "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."
Following his address, politicians from all sides gave a standing ovation to the survivors of the laundries and their supporters who embraced one another in the packed public gallery.
Advocates of compensation for the roughly 1,000 survivors welcomed the apology. In an interview with RTE, the national broadcaster, Sally Mulready, chairwoman of the London-based Irish Women Survivors Network said: "It was so significant and so genuinely expressed. He got the humanity of the suffering and what they endured but he also looked to the future and said 'whatever is left of their lives, let's make it comfortable for them; let's help them to recover.'"
The formula for how to compensate the survivors has yet to be determined.
The "Maggies," as they were known, were excluded from a previous compensation for those who suffered in state-run institutions because officials contended that the laundries were never under the jurisdiction of the state. For many years, advocacy organizations in Ireland, Britain and the United States had accused successive governments of operating a "deny until they die" policy against the dwindling number of women affected, many of whom are now elderly.
In 2011, the decade-long campaign won a significant breakthrough when the United Nations Committee Against Torture requested the Irish government to conduct an independent investigation after it accused Ireland of having failed to protect the rights of women in the laundries.
This resulted in an official report published earlier this month, which found endemic state involvement in the laundries, contradicting successive assertions from those in power that they played no act or part in their operations. The report dealt with 10,012 women and girls detained in laundries from 1922 to 1996: the average age was 23, the youngest entered aged just nine and the oldest was 89. The report stated that 2,124 of them had been sent by the authorities.
It is believed at least 4,000 more passed through the doors of two other large laundries not considered by the report. Mr. Kenny said the apology and redress also covered these women, a gesture welcomed by advocacy groups and politicians.
The report compiled by the then-senator Martin McAleese, husband of the former Irish president Mary McAleese, found the state had "significant" involvement with a system comprising ten private institutions run by four orders of Catholic nuns, in which women and young girls were forced to work long hours for no pay. Not only did it consign thousands of young girls and women to these places, it failed to inspect their work practices in any meaningful way and awarded the institutions lucrative contracts to wash linen from prisons and other public facilities.
In Irish lore the laundries were synonymous with so-called 'fallen women' – unmarried mothers -- but the report found little basis to support this view, saying those concerned "have for too long felt the social stigma of this wholly inaccurate characterization". Many of the women were consigned to the laundries for petty criminal convictions. Some were the victims of abusive family relationships, and many had mental health problems.
"None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children," Mr. McAleese wrote in his introduction to the report. "Not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out to and see their families again."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.