The prime minister appeared close to tears during his statement Tuesday night to the Dail or parliament, the Irish Independent reported. Women who had worked in the laundries cried as they listened in the gallery.
The laundries, originally the Magdalene Asylums, were founded in the 18th century as refuges for "fallen women." A report earlier this month by former Sen. Martin McAleese said that after Ireland became independent in 1922, the government was closely involved with the laundries, which were run by Catholic nuns, with many of the residents referred by courts or police and with government contracts keeping them going financially.
The last laundry closed in 1996. McAleese said that women who lived in the laundries were forced to work long hours in conditions that were often harsh and lonely.
As many as 1,000 survivors of the laundries are believed to be still living. Kenny promised that a fund will be set up to provide compensation and help.
In his speech, Kenny said the women "carried this country's terrible secret."
"Therefore, I, as taoiseach [prime minister], on behalf of the state, the government and our citizens, apologize unreservedly to all those women for the hurt done to them, and any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene laundry," he said.
The laundries became a scandal in the early 1990s after unmarked graves of Magdalene residents were found at a Dublin convent. Life in the laundries has been examined in TV documentaries and in a feature film, "The Magdalene Sisters," starring Geraldine McEwan as a sadistic mother superior.