Irish Prime Minister Apologizes for Forced Labor in Magdalene Laundries

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has issued an official apology on behalf of the Irish state for its involvement in the Magdalene Laundries from 1922 to 1996

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Peter Morrison / AP

Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candlelit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin, on Feb. 19, 2013

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny made a historic apology on Tuesday to the survivors of the notorious Magdalene Laundries and the families of more than 10,000 women who were forced into unpaid labor from 1922 to 1996. In an emotional speech to the Irish Parliament, Kenny told the surviving women and their families “this is a national shame for which I say again I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”

For more than seven decades in the 20th century, thousands of unmarried mothers, women who had been sexually abused and young girls who had grown up in the care of the state lived and worked in the Irish Magdalene Laundries operated by four orders of Catholic nuns. Ignored by Irish society, 26.5% of these “fallen women” were sent there by the Irish state to work without pay for an average of six months. The Irish government had previously denied playing a role in sending young women to work in laundries.

(MORE: Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: Irish Report Exposes a National Shame)

A report released on Feb. 5 by an Irish government committee investigating state involvement revealed new details about conditions in the Magdalene Laundries. Following the release of the report, advocacy groups called on the Irish government to issue an apology on behalf of the state and to provide compensation for the women who spent time in the laundries. Kenny initially decried any “stigma” attached to the women, but declined to apologize for state involvement in the laundries.

Two weeks later, Kenny acceded to advocacy groups’ request. “I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of this state, the government and our citizens, deeply regret and apologize unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, for any stigma they suffered as a result of the time they spent in the Magdalene laundry,” he said. “We now know that the state itself was directly involved in over a quarter of all admissions to the Magdalene Laundries.”

Kenny said the women who were sent to the laundries were blameless and deserved more than a formal apology. The Irish government will launch a three-month review to assess how it can provide support to survivors in the form of payments, medical cards and psychological and counseling services, according to the Irish Times. Kenny also said the religious orders that ran the laundries would need to “to make a fair contribution.”

(MORE: Will Ireland Apologize to the Women of the Magdalene Laundries?)

“Mr. Kenny leads by example in demonstrating the need for our nation to re-examine its ‘conscience’ for the manner in which marginalized women and children are treated in the past and the present,” Professor James Smith of Justice for Magdalenes, a survivor advocacy group, told TIME via e-mail. “On the 19th February 2013, we witnessed the beginnings of the end of Magdalene Ireland.”

A total of 2,124 women were referred by the state to the laundries from 1922 to 1996. The youngest person to enter the laundries was 9 years old and the oldest was 89. Nearly 900 women died while living and working in the Magdalene Laundries.