Leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, it’s difficult to miss Mary Ellen Murphy’s South Hill home. Not only are there plenty of green shamrocks around the front door and decorating the lights out front; there’s a green spray-painted St. Patrick’s Day logo on Murphy’s sidewalk.
And yes, the Murphys are throwing quite a St. Patrick’s Day bash on Saturday.
“We usually see between 75 and 100 people here, before the day is over,” said Murphy, who began setting out plates and glasses on several tables earlier this week. “It’s quite the party. We’ve always celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.”
One reason for the large guest count is undoubtedly that Murphy and her husband, Jack Murphy, have 10 children – six boys and four girls.
“My girls all help out with the party,” Murphy said. “They deserve a lot of the credit for keeping the tradition going.”
Murphy has been named Irish Woman of the Year 2012, in recognition of her tireless work to keep the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick parade afloat.
The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in recent times took place in 1979 and counted Murphy, Tim Finnerty and Mike Shea among its organizers.
“When we all got together and got started, we realized that there was a cost involved in having the parade,” Finnerty said. “Mary Ellen hosted many fundraisers in her backyard to help cover the cost. She was always doing something.”
Patrick Murphy, one of the Murphys’ sons, said that as soon as one parade was over, his mom would start planning ahead, thinking of what could make a good theme for next year’s family float.
“One year, instead of the Wild Irish Rose, it was the Wild Irish Nose,” Patrick Murphy said.
The entire 24th Street Gang, as they call themselves, donned fake noses, glasses and mustaches, and followed a giant papier-mâché nose mounted on a blue truck as they headed downtown for the parade.
Growing up, Patrick Murphy said some of his fondest memories were of getting ready for the parade with his family and friends.
“There were always so many of us around,” he said, “there were always friends, or cousins to play with. I don’t think people get the same experience today of growing up in a close neighborhood as we did.”
Jack and Mary Ellen Murphy met while attending high school in Spokane and married in 1958, but their children weren’t all born here. Murphy said the couple’s first son was born in Omaha, Neb., while her husband, a physician, pursued his career.
The Murphys moved on to California where they had another son, and then on to Germany where Jack Murphy was stationed for three years. They had three children there. The Murphys next moved to New York, where they had two more children. They finally settled back home in Spokane in 1968 – and had their last three children here. Jack Murphy joined Radiology Associates at Holy Family Hospital. The Murphys are now retired.
“I taught grade school early on, but as the kids came along it was much better for me to stay home,” Mary Ellen Murphy said. At one time, the couple had eight children at what was then Cataldo Primary and Middle Schools, one at each grade level.
“Yes, we did have a big family, but there were other big families around,” she said. “And we are just like any other family. We have good times and bad times and ups and downs. We are nothing special.”
Born into a big Irish family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Murphy can’t remember not celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
“My parents were second-generation Irish immigrants, and they were very proud to be Irish,” she said, adding that her family always embraced any reason to celebrate.
She doesn’t like the way St. Patrick’s Day has become synonymous with drinking.
“We always wanted the parade to be about the kids and the families,” she said. “It’s not like we didn’t party, we certainly did, but parade day was always sacred, it was for the kids.”
Finnerty and Murphy both said the first parades in Spokane were “rag tag” and that it was difficult getting support from the community. For instance, they said, they never were able to get marching bands to join the parade.
“My first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was when I was in fourth grade in New York City – that’s a huge parade,” Murphy said.
Finnerty chimed in that they always wanted the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to be about kids and neighborhood participation.
“We never wanted it to be big like the Lilac Parade,” he said.
On Saturday, the menu at the Murphys’ house is, of course, corned beef and cabbage – and Irish coffee.
“The paper called one time to get my recipe,” Murphy said, laughing.
This year’s family float theme is Mrs. Murphy’s Potato Heads.
“My sisters are really pulling together to get the shirts printed and buying all the penny candy,” said Patrick Murphy, adding that it’s only possible to get everything organized because the entire family pitches in.
The Murphys’ 10 kids have blessed their parents with 18 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
“To us, St. Patrick’s Day really is a family day,” the family matriarch said. “It’s a day to spend together.”
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