The head of the Irish government broke into tears as he made an historic and emotionally-charged state apology to survivors of the Magdalene laundries.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny received a standing ovation in parliament after he described the Catholic-run workhouses as the "nation's shame" and accepted the state's direct involvement.

magdalene laundries

Campaigners have fought to win a full apology from the Irish government

"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," Mr Kenny said.

Twenty women who were locked up in one of the laundries watched with bated breath from the public gallery.

They held hands tightly and wept as the Taoiseach made his tearful apology.

Maureen Sullivan, who was 12 when she was sent to a Magdalene laundry when her father died, said Mr Kenny had given survivors their lives back.

"He didn't hold back on anything," Ms Sullivan said.

"He really did us proud. Now we can go on with our lives and we know that we've got an apology, and he's taken responsibility. It's just fantastic."

In unprecedented scenes of emotion during the eagerly-awaited state apology, Mr Kenny outlined plans to compensate the survivors.

"As a society, for many years we failed you," he said.

"We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.

"This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies."

The government has appointed president of the Law Reform Commission Judge John Quirke to take a three-month review and make recommendations on payments to surviving women.

Mr Kenny said payments would be made with other support, including medical cards, psychological and counselling services, and other welfare needs.

He confirmed the government would set up a compensation fund for women, based on the judge's recommendations.

maureen sullivan magdalene

Maureen Sullivan (left) said Enda Kenny had 'done the women proud' with his apology

The state apology follows the publication of a report from former senator Martin McAleese, which revealed that the state was responsible for 24% of all admissions to the laundries - where girls as young as 11 were forced to work unpaid.

The inquiry found that 10,000 women were incarcerated in the workhouses, run by nuns from four religious orders for a myriad of reasons - from petty crime to poverty, disability or pregnancy outside marriage.

The last laundry closed in 1996, at Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin's north inner city.

Survivor Ms Sullivan said the Taoiseach's apology removed the stigma attached to all those detained in the Magdalene laundries, who were often considered "fallen women".

"I'm proud now of the leader of our country. I can say that for the first time," she added.

"I was never proud of anything in Ireland until today. He did the whole country proud and we re-wrote history this evening."

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The government has outlined the terms of reference Mr Justice Quirke will use to set up the compensation scheme.

Payments will be made to women who were admitted and worked in the laundries, as well as those detained in similar institutions that were classed as training units.

The judge will consider relevant criteria during the three-month review period, including labour undertaken at the workhouses.

He will also examine how best to establish an ex-gratia fund "in an effective and timely manner" that ensures the women benefit of the money - and that it is not directed at legal fees or expenses.

Mr Justice Quirke has also been asked to consider how the government might best provide other supports as part of the scheme, including health services such as medical cards, mental health services and counselling services and other welfare needs.

The compensation will have no impact on the women's social welfare payments and tax liabilities, according to the terms of reference.

And survivors living outside Ireland will receive compensation. The judge will ensure payments to those living in the UK do not affect their existing entitlements and benefits.

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  • Magdalene apology

    Marina Gambold (left) and Maureen Sullivan (centre) of Madalene Survivors Together leaving Leinster House in Dublin after hearing Taoiseach Enda Kenny's state apology those who survived Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries.

  • Kathleen Janette who worked at the Catholic run work houses known as the Magdalene Laundries reacts along with other work house colleagues after leaving Leinster House in Dublin on 19 February after witnessing Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny make an apology in the Irish Parliament on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

  • Magdalene apology

    Mary Smyth of Madalene Survivors Together leaving Leinster House in Dublin after hearing Taoiseach Enda Kenny's state apology to those who survived Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries.

  • Magdalene apology

    Kathleen Janette of Madalene Survivors Together leaving Leinster House in Dublin after hearing Taoiseach Enda Kenny's state apology to those who survived Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries.

  • Magdalene apology

    Maureen Sullivan (left) and Kathleen Janette of Madalene Survivors Together leaving Leinster House in Dublin after hearing Taoiseach Enda Kenny's state apology to those who survived Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries.

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublinon 19 February 2013. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

  • A woman hold a poster as relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries wait for an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries outside Leinster House, ahead of an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. The women also heard details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

  • Apology for Magdalene Laundry women

    The exterior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin's north inner city on the day of The Irish Government has apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996.

  • Magdalene survivors to meet Kenny

    L-R Maureen Sullivan and Marina Gambold who worked in Magdalene laundries arrive at Leinster House to meet the Taoiseach to further press for a state apology for their treatment.

  • The interior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry, in Dublin, on Feb. 5, 2013. An expert panel has found that Ireland should be legally responsible for workhouses run by Catholic nuns that once kept thousands of women and teenage girls against their will in unpaid, forced labour. (AP Photo/Julien Behal, PA)

  • Apology for Magdalene Laundry women

    A Dublin City Council worker shines a torch in the corridor of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin's north inner city on the day the Irish government apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996.

  • Magdalene survivors to meet Kenny

    (left to right) Marina Gambold and Maureen Sullivan who worked in Magdalene laundries arrive at Leinster House to meet the Taoiseach to further press for a state apology for their treatment.

  • Apology for Magdalene Laundry women

    The grill out through which new people admitted would be first seen on the door of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin's north inner city on the day of The Irish Government has apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996.

  • Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin

    A man looks at a burial plot for victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin on the eve of the report to investigate the states role in the laundries which was compiled by a committee of officials from five Government departments and chaired by Senator Martin McAleese.