A tearful Enda Kenny twice had to pause to compose himself as he delivered an emotional Dail apology on behalf of the State to the Magdalene Laundry survivors.
Former Magdalene residents, who lined the public gallery for the admission that the State had wronged them, broke into tears as they applauded words they had waited a lifetime to hear.
The estimated 800 to 1,000 surviving Magdalene residents have been given confirmation that a compensation scheme will be set up for them.
Payments will be made for their years of unpaid work in the laundries.
And the fund will also be used to pay for medical treatment, counselling services and other welfare measures for the women who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries.
In a highly charged speech in the Dail last night, Mr Kenny described how the women had carried "this country's terrible secret" with them at home and abroad in countries such as England, Canada, America and Australia.
"But from this moment on, you need carry it no more. Because today, we take it back," he said.
He delivered an unreserved apology to those who had been described as "fallen women" when they were in fact "wholly blameless".
"Therefore, I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the Government and our citizens, apologise 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.
Mr Kenny made amends for his hesitant response two weeks ago when former Senator Martin McAleese's 1,000-page report into the State's involvement in the Magdalene Laundries was published.
The Taoiseach acknowledged that the State itself was directly involved in over a quarter of all admissions to the Magdalene Laundries – through the social services, industrial schools, the courts system and other routes.
He had to pause to compose himself before expressing his hope that there would now be a "new dawn" for the survivors.
Mr Kenny promised a public memorial for the women of the Magdalene Laundries, to be designed in consultation with them.
There will be an initial €250,000 payment towards counselling for the majority of survivors, who are now living in Britain. The support scheme will include those women who worked without pay in the Stanhope Street laundry in Dublin.
The Government said last night that no decision on the amount of money set aside for helping survivors would be made until a report has been carried out on their specific needs by Judge John Quirke, president of the Law Reform Commission.
But Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the Government did not want the money wasted on lawyers' fees – nor would it require the women to prove they were traumatised.
From today, survivors can leave their details with the Department of Justice. They will be required to come up with documentation to prove their identity and the fact that they stayed in one of the 10 former Magdalene Laundries.
In his Dail speech, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore was highly critical of the role of the Catholic Church for colluding with the State in having women committed for being poor, for being an orphan or being pregnant.
He specifically called on the four religious orders who ran the Magdalene laundries to help the State provide a more comfortable future for the survivors – even though the McAleese report found that they made little or no profit from them.
"These laundries were private businesses, run by those orders, which benefited from the unpaid labour of the women committed to them. The past does not belong to the State alone," he said.
A standing ovation in the Dail at the end of Mr Kenny's speech was directed at the Magdalene survivors who were seated in the public gallery.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Independent TD Richard Boyd Barrett all welcomed the state apology delivered by Mr Kenny in their responses.
Mr Martin admitted that the issue had not been dealt with by previous Fianna Fail-led Governments.
"I accept that steps should have been taken earlier to make this apology – and I am sorry this did not happen over the last decade when I was a member of government," he said.
The Justice for Magdalenes survivor advocacy group said Judge Quirke must be given statutory powers and that an independent appeals system should be set up.
It welcomed Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's call to the religious congregations to contribute to the compensation fund.
Amnesty International Ireland's executive director Colm O'Gorman, who himself was a victim of clerical sexual abuse, said Mr Kenny's unreserved apology was very welcome.