Victims of child abuse wept last night after President Mary McAleese apologised for their suffering on behalf of the people of Ireland.
For many of them, now in old age, it was the first time they shed such tears of joy.
Over 280 victims of institutional abuse travelled from home and abroad to Aras an Uachtarain yesterday at the president’s invitation.
They had very different stories but they were all expressing joy and relief as they left last night.
In her speech, President McAleese spoke of the painful lives endured by thousands of children who had suffered institutional abuse, as laid out graphically in the Ryan report.
“It calls for responses at many levels, official and unofficial,” she said.
“For so long your suffering seemed to make strangers of you in your own land.”
Ms McAleese previously suggested that those behind the acts of criminal neglect or violence should be brought to justice.
Men and women in their seventies, eighties and nineties spoke of feeling “free” for the first time after they emerged from the gates of the presidential home in the Phoenix Park.
One guest, John Kelly, had lived on the streets of London after he suffered horrific abuse at the Daingean reformatory.
Yesterday he said the meeting with the president had been an historic occasion for many of the 14,000 abuse victims who fled Ireland.
He praised the president for giving them the desire to be Irish again and calling for the perpetrators of abuse to be prosecuted.
“I spent 33 years in England,” he
“I slept on benches in Hyde Park. It was safer than those places.
“People wouldn’t come back. Why would they, for a state that didn’t care about them?
“Today’s the first day the State has acknowledged ‘You’re Irish and have rights’ and it’s 48 or 50 years too late.
“But this president has done that and that has given us hope and inspiration. And now we’re proud to be
He said he had seen dozens of old and frail faces light up as the president spoke to them.
As children they had been tried for offences they did not commit before being thrown into institutions, he said.
“Half of them emigrated and we brought many of these people back here today.
“Before they die they have heard the president saying ‘We were wrong’.”