Mary Smyth speaks to media outside the Dáil after the apology from Enda Kenny. photograph: alan betson
The following is an edited version of Enda Kenny’s speech in the Dáil last night.
The Magdalene laundries have cast a long shadow over Irish life . . . over our sense of who we are.
It’s just two weeks since we received this report, the first-ever detailed report into the State’s involvement in the Magdalene laundries.
It shines a bright and necessary light . . . on a dark chapter of Ireland’s history.
The Government was adamant that these ageing and elderly women would get the compassion and the recognition that, until now, has been so abjectly denied.
I was determined the Dáil would take the necessary time to reflect on its findings. I believe that was the best way to formulate a strategy.... that would help us make amends for the State’s role in the hurt of these extraordinary women.
I’m glad that so many of the women themselves agreed with that approach. And I’m glad it gave me the chance to meet personally with the Magdalene women, to sit down with them face to face, to listen to their stories. It was a humbling and inspiring experience.
Today, as their Taoiseach, I am privileged to welcome some of these women to this House, many of whom have travelled long distances to be here.
What we address today is how you took this country’s terrible “secret” and made it your own. Burying it, carrying it in your heart, here at home, or with you to England and to Canada, America and Australia, on behalf of Ireland and the Irish people.
But from this moment on you need carry it no more. Because today we take it back. Today we acknowledge the role of the State in your ordeal.
We have decided to include all the Magdalene women in our response, regardless of how they were admitted.
As I read the report and as I listened to these women, it struck me that for generations Ireland had created a particular portrait of itself as a good-living God-fearing nation.
Through this, we know this flattering self-portrait to be fictitious. By any standards it was a cruel, pitiless Ireland distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy.
As I sat with these women as they told their stories, it was clear that, while every woman’s story was different, each of them shared a particular experience of a particular Ireland: judgemental; intolerant; petty; and prim. The thread that ran through their stories was a palpable sense of suffocation, not just physical in that they were incarcerated but psychological, spiritual and social. Here are some of the things I read in the report and they said directly to me: “The work was so hard, the regime was cruel.” “I felt all alone, nobody wanted me.” “They sent me because they thought I was going to a good school.” “I seen these older people beside me, I used cry myself to sleep.” “I was bold, I wasn’t going to school.” “I was locked up, I thought I would never get out.” “We had to sew at night even when we were sick...” “We were not allowed to talk to each other.” “I thought I would go mad from the silence.” “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.”
The Magdalene women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong, or a sin, but we know now – and to our shame – they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow.
We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the church and the State was the same and interchangeable.
Is it this mindset, then, this moral subservience that gave us the social mores. For we saw difference as something to be feared and hidden rather than embraced and celebrated.
The report shows that the perception that the Magdalene laundries were reserved for what were offensively and judgementally called “fallen women” is not based upon fact at all but upon prejudice. The women are and always were wholly blameless.
Therefore, 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 Magdalen laundry.
But in reflecting on this report, I have come to the view that these women deserve more than this formal apology, important though it is. I also want to put in place a process by which we can determine how best to help and support the women in their remaining years. That’s why the Government has today asked the president of the Law Reform Commission, Judge John Quirke, to undertake a three-month review and to make recommendations as to the criteria that should be applied in assessing the help that the Government can provide in the areas of payments and other supports, including medical cards, psychological and counselling services and other welfare needs.
When Judge Quirke has reported, the Government will establish a fund to assist the women, based on his recommendations. I am confident that this process will enable us to provide speedy, fair and meaningful help to the women in a compassionate and non-adversarial way. I am determined that the fund will be primarily used to help the women – as is their stated and strong desire – not for legal or administrative costs. I am also conscious that many of the women I met last week want to see a permanent memorial established to remind us all of this dark part of our history.
As a society, for many years we failed you. This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.
At the conclusion of my discussions with one group of the Magdalene women, one of those present sang Whispering Hope. A line from that song stays in my mind: “When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day.”
Let me hope this day and this debate heralds a new dawn for all those who feared the dark midnight might never end.