Irish heritage holds a priceless piece of family's heart

Mary Ellard-Ivey and her daughters Fionnuala and Molly make Irish soda bread. - Courtesy photo
Mary Ellard-Ivey and her daughters Fionnuala and Molly make Irish soda bread.
— image credit: Courtesy photo


For Mary Ellard-Ivey, her St. Patrick’s Day celebration will begin by performing with the Federal Way-based Irish dancing group Fire and Ice during the opening of the Sonics pre-game show Friday at Seattle’s KeyArena.

Mary Ellard-Ivey was born and raised in the Irish town of Dún Laoghaire, located 7 miles south of Dublin, the country’s capital.

She came to North America from Ireland with the sole purpose of pursuing a Ph.D. degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Soon after, she won a permanent green card through a visa lottery contest. She decided to give it away since she had already met her American husband, Richard Ivey, during a scientific retreat at Oregon State University.

“I actually never meant to stay. I liked to say I just forgot to go home,” Ellard-Ivey said. “Twelve years later, I have two daughters and an American husband.”

Ellard-Ivey is now a biology professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Her husband works as a research scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

They gave their daughters Irish names: Molly 9, and Fionnuala, 7.

Her youngest daughter’s name, Fionnuala, arouses a lot of curiosity in people; her name comes from the Irish words “fionn chuala,” which mean “fair shoulders.”

“It’s a lot of fun to watch people struggle with our daughter’s name,” Richard Ivey said.

Irish identity:

In order to keep up to date with her Irish identity, and to make it an essential part in her daughters’ lives, Mary Ellard-Ivey and her daughters travel every year to Ireland to spend time with their numerous family members.

“I like my kids to be there and interact with my family,” Ellard-Ivey said.

“Our daughters are very interested in their Irish ancestry. They enjoy learning Irish words and spending time with their cousins and relatives in Ireland,” Richard Ivey said.

Although her daughters have spent most of their lives in Federal Way, Ellard-Ivey was never very involved in local community activities until she discovered the Fire and Ice Irish Dancers group.

Its founder, Susan Calhoun, created the group almost 10 years ago after watching a television performance by the world-renowned Irish dancing company, River Dance.

“This is my third year dancing, and although it’s quite a time commitment, it has given me a sense of community, and a way for me and my daughters to connect with our heritage,” Ellard-Ivey said.

Fire and Ice has more than 70 members of all ages and backgrounds, and meets four times a week at different points in Federal Way.

“The most memorable St. Patrick’s Day I’ve ever had was last year at the Seattle Center, when we performed halftime at a Sonics basketball game,” Ellard-Ivey said.

This year, the Federal Way Irish dancing group will participate in the Seattle St. Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday, and will also perform Monday at the Spring Valley Montessori School in Federal Way.

“It seems like St. Patrick’s Day is a much bigger deal in America than it is in Ireland,” Richard Ivey said.

“Ireland is a very Catholic country, and since St. Patrick is one of our patron saints, most people attend Mass during that day. But it seems like there’s less hysteria over there than here,” Ellard-Ivey said. “For example there’s no dyeing the river green like they do in Chicago, if you know what I mean.”

Although in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is not considered a national holiday, it is an annual worldwide festivity generally celebrated around March 17.

In the United States, people usually celebrate it regardless of their ethnic backgrounds by wearing green-colored garments — and by meeting in local Irish pubs with friends.

There’s something about being Irish here, Ellard-Ivey said.

“I’m amazed of how everyone has some link or another to Ireland, and a lot of people say they’re Irish, even if that happened a number of generations ago. I wonder why some people feel it’s not OK just to say that they’re American?” she said.

“The great thing about the Irish is that they are so welcoming and friendly, and they love Americans,” Richard Ivey said.

“There, you don’t ever have to pretend to be Canadian,” he joked.

Even though Mary Ellard-Ivey still fantasizes about one day winning the lottery and moving back to her native town of Dún Laoghaire, she said she is very happy with her family’s life in Federal Way, her students at PLU, her Irish dancing group and her daughters’ school — Enterprise Elementary in Federal Way.

“If I can constantly have my kids connected with Ireland, that will satisfy any sudden urge of wanting to go back one day,” she said.

Contact Aileen Charleston: or (253) 925-5565.

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