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Happy Birthday Parades: How a 6-year-old Chicago musician is making his corner of the world a little brighter

Six-year-old Jack Gallagher of LaGrange, Illinois USA, has been studying fiddle at Murphy Roche School of Irish Music since he was 3, so when he decided it was time to do a project during COVID, he naturally turned to his music. He decided on a plan to reach out to people who were experiencing a birthday in isolation and to cheer them with a parade to celebrate their big day.

With the help of his family, he decorated their minivan and enlisted his brother to be his lead singer. In the space of less than 10 weeks, they have done more than a dozen Happy Birthday Parades, commemorating the birthdays of people in the area, aged 5 to 98. Their equipment includes a portable microphone and signage Jack and his brother, Joe (4), customize for each celebrant. While Jack’s first choice is to do the parade live but masked and safely distanced, he has done some by Zoom to protect his more vulnerable celebrants.

It all began when Gallagher was trying to think of something special he could do for his grandmother, since a traditional celebration was not an option: “I know, I’ll play Happy Birthday on the violin for her.” It was a great success and soon family, friends, neighbors and others were clamoring for his services.

Gallagher discovered that, although he found doing the parades tremendously rewarding and exciting, they also could be a bit make him a bit nervous as he prepared for performances. “I usually prepare by trying to run over the notes in my head right before I play.” Once Gallagher starts to play, the nerves seem to vanish. “When I’m done playing, and see how happy the birthday person is, I feel glad I’ve done it.”

Mary Lou Braasch, a neighbor of the Gallagher family, was impressed with Gallagher’s initiative in doing the project at such a young age and enjoyed his performance. As Gallagher explains, “They feel I make their birthday more special. My neighbor said, ‘You are excellent, Jack. You are really good at the fiddle,’ so that was really encouraging to get that feedback and it made me want to do more.”

Kristen Reichel, also a neighbor, said the Gallaghers performed a birthday parade for her son Jackson’s 5th birthday in April. “It was just the most amazing thing. So impressive for a 6-year-old to play Happy Birthday on his violin. Jackson talked about it later. It was also nice to see Joe performing as a singer,” said Reichel. “It’s a great self-esteem booster for a child to be able to accomplish something like this.”

Gallagher is the only musician playing in the birthday parade, so his role is unique. His brother Joe, 4, sings Happy Birthday as Jack plays. “Joe gives me some courage to play well,” explains Gallagher.

“The oldest person I played for Miss Rita when she turned 98 years old and I had to record it and send it to her for safety because she can’t have visitors,” says Gallagher, proudly showing off the note she sent thanking him for his kindness.

Gallagher takes it in stride: “It’s important to do this because I want people to know their birthdays are special and it’s important to think about others during Corona. This is a positive thing to do.”

Gallagher also participated in Irish President Michael Higgins’ Ode to Joy project to play Ode to Joy in public to celebrate the contributions of healthcare workers. A clip of Gallagher’s Ode to Joy video has been viewed hundreds of times by viewers as far away as Ireland, England and The Netherlands.

Kell Chole, director of Murphy Roche, feels that despite his young age, Gallagher has been a leader in finding ways to help people who might be feeling lonely or disenfranchised because they are isolated by the COVID-19 quarantine. “It’s really special that Jack has found this outlet for his music. Not only is he bringing people joy during lockdown, he’s improving his performance skills and that will serve him well in the future.” Gallagher’s family has a long history of community giving. Gallagher is the great-grand nephew of the late Mickey Rahilly, who was well known to many as a set dancer and legendary supporter of the Irish community. Rahilly was a great influence on Gallagher and Gallagher paid him homage by performing at the celebration of Rahilly’s life before hundreds of friends and family at Gaelic Park last year.
“My uncle Mickey was a really good Irish dancer; he loved dancing,” explains Gallagher. “And, my grandparents grew up in Ireland; my grandmother was one of the best Irish dancers. I’d like to thank my mom and dad and my uncle for introducing me to Irish music. My dad plays it all the time, so I’ve heard it all my life.

Mickey Rahilly (RIP), and Jack enjoying each others company

“I really like playing the violin at Murphy Roche. Sometimes I get to play music with my friends there and have lunch. I like all the teachers but my favorite is Conor McJannett,” continues Gallagher. “One day I’d like to be an instructor, maybe. I would make it fun for kids to learn music.” Gallagher muses on his pre-COVID-19 experiences: “Every month, before Coronavirus, we played a session at the Irish Legend and lots of people came to listen. I always got a kiddie cocktail to drink while I played in the session.

“I would recommend this as a project for other kids -- so long as you play an instrument that is not, say, drums or rock guitar: You can just go outside and play your instrument. Then you can open your instrument case and let people drop money in and you can donate that money to a children’s hospital because that’s a good cause,” he suggests.

The Happy Birthday project will be ongoing for Gallagher: “I will keep doing this as long as there are more birthdays,” he says.
Gallagher’s own birthday celebration was July 31, when he turned 7. Joe Gallagher hosted an extra special birthday parade to celebrate his brother’s big day.

Athenry By Cahal Dunne

Lumiere and Damien Dempsey

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