'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'
The Taoiseach’s voice was steady and clear: “From this moment on, you need carry it no more. Because today . . . we take it back.” There were gasps in the gallery. Deputies blinked and welled up. Outside the round railing, Senator Marie Maloney wept. Clare Daly wrapped her arms tightly across her chest, her eyes brimming. Billy Kelleher fought back the tears.
In the public gallery, they didn’t hold back. The Taoiseach listed some of the things that happened to these dignified older women when they were young girls – some told to him by them when they met last week.
It was a long, heart-wrenching list. Things like “I felt all alone, nobody wanted me . . . We had to sew at night, even when we were sick . . . I heard a radio sometimes in the distance . . . I broke a cup once and had to wear it hanging around my neck for three days. I felt always tired, always wet, always humiliated . . . I never saw my mam again – she died while I was in there . . .” Tissues were passed around. Noses blown, spectacles pushed up and eyes rubbed.
Fifteen minutes into the speech came the apology. The air crackled with emotion.
“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.”
Enda hadn’t let them down.
Hands were clapped across open mouths. Hankies appeared again. There were hugs and smiles, lots of smiles.
Arrangements would be put in place for compensation and a permanent memorial will be erected. Finally, the Taoiseach remembered one of his meetings with the Magdalenes. One woman sang him a song at the end of it – Whispering Hope – and quoted a line which stayed with him. “When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day.” Enda paused. “Let me hope that this day and this debate . . .” and he stopped, fighting back the tears. “Excuse me” he murmured. He took a gulp of air and went on “ . . . heralds . . .” and he cleared his throat and paused again “a new dawn for all those who feared that the dark midnight might never end.” And it was over. Enda sat down, pale and drawn.
The women started to applaud. Louder and louder, some with their hands in the air. They stood and clapped the Taoiseach and they embraced and then they applauded themselves. It was such a happy, heartbreaking scene. And then the deputies began to applaud, rising too to their feet.
Even the Ceann Comhairle knew there are times when rules just have to be broken. He stood and applauded too. Ushers were in tears. Civil servants in tears. Journalists in tears.
Later the Taoiseach went into the gallery to met the women before they left, tired but walking taller, happy. A huge burden lifted.
There are times when the Dáil makes you want to bang your head off the wall in frustration. And there are times when our parliament can make us proud. Last night was one of those times. And Enda Kenny can feel proud too.
He made it a special night to remember for his, and our, special guests.