Early in the pandemic, when the internet became a portal to the world that was suddenly closed to us, I discovered an Irish cellist. The video showed a young man in an Aran sweater playing the cello outside his seaside cottage on the west coast of Ireland.
For all that was happening in the world, he radiated contentment as he played with a half-smile, his eyes closed, seemingly lost in the music. The cellist – his name was Patrick Dexter – was located in County Mayo, a place I had visited years earlier. As Dexter played classical music or traditional Irish melodies, a black dog wandered into the frame or sat nearby.
I followed Dexter on Twitter and watched his videos daily. Then, occasionally. And then very occasionally as the world started opening up and we all got busy again.
Just ahead of the May long weekend, I saw a tweet from his account. He was looking forward to playing a little free concert at Highlife Records on Commercial Drive.
What? This almost didn’t compute. Highlife is a Vancouver shop, blocks from where I live. How was it that my pandemic cellist was going to be playing a concert there, of all places?
Was he on a concert tour? Starting, like U2 and Lady Gaga, in Vancouver and then working his way east?
In any case, I knew where I had to be that Tuesday afternoon at 4:00. Previous commitments, news assignments, dinner prep be damned.
That day, I sat down with Dexter for a cup of tea. When someone becomes part of your life through a traumatic time, you kind of feel like you know them. But I wanted to hear his story. What had happened that led to these wordless cello concerts on Ireland’s rugged west coast?
Dexter was working as a music teacher at the local Irish-speaking school when he lost his job in March, 2020. His wife Jan Campbell, a sculptor, was pregnant. Early on, they were not allowed to go more than two kilometres from their home.
To pass the time, he played his cello. And during that exceptionally beautiful spring, he began to play outside.
“With all this and this storm building in the world, we found ourselves in this little isolated spot. It felt like paradise for us,” says Dexter, who lives on Clew Bay. “And everything having slowed down and stopped, I felt it enhanced that awareness for me of spring.”
They initially started sending these videos privately to friends and family as a way to stay in touch, share some music and also document Campbell’s growing pregnancy. Then someone suggested he post the videos online.
Dexter didn’t have any social media accounts at that point; he hadn’t used Facebook since college. But he saw that the videos were bringing solace.
“So I was like, okay, we’ll give it a go,” he recounts. Still, he didn’t think it would amount to much. “There is such important stuff going on in the world right now with a lot of weight, a lot of gravity. Me in my garden playing my cello – it doesn’t have a place there. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t have that same weight as these big issues,” he thought.
“And I was completely wrong. Never been so wrong in my life.’”
The videos began to get international traction, showing up in social media feeds, including mine.
“The cello has a way of wiggling its way into all those people’s hearts. And I was finding this out as people were sending me private messages,” Dexter, 33, told me.
Not just online. One day he received a package in the post, a letter of thanks from Canada, addressed to “the cellist who plays outside his cottage, Mayo.”
Opportunities came his way and he is now in-house composer for County Hall Arts in London (work he does mostly remotely).
This spring, he released his debut record, Solace. It was recorded live at his cottage, with microphones set up not just inside, but out – to capture that environment that helped capture the world’s attention.
Alas, Dexter was not in Vancouver to launch a cross-country tour to promote the album, but was in town for a wedding. While here, he wandered into the record shop, got talking with the owner and the little free recital was set.
Tiny Highlife Records was jammed that afternoon with people like me who had discovered Dexter on social media. “He’s in Ireland. And all of a sudden there’s a post that he’s going to be on Commercial Drive?” the woman standing next to me, Kateryna Anatolia, said, reflecting my own experience.
Dexter’s wife and almost-two-year-old daughter were in the crowd, too, as he played and chatted for an hour.
“I’m really happy to be here on the other side of the planet,” he told the record store crowd.
In Vancouver, he met up IRL with another musical pandemic internet sensation, Gurdeep Pandher, whose regular Bhangra dance videos from Yukon have also provided much pandemic joy. “An online friendship formed during the pandemic has ... become an in-person reality,” Pandher wrote on his popular Twitter feed. In his blue running shorts, Dexter played Bach and then joined Pandher in a Bhangra dance in a Vancouver backyard. “Spreading joy and positivity!” Dexter wrote on Twitter.
At Highlife Records, Dexter debuted his newest song, The Two Sisters – inspired by the Vancouver mountain peaks also known as the Lions.
He had started working on that piece of music in remote Ireland, continued to do so – and gave it a name – in Canada, after he and his daughter began saying goodnight to the peaks each day. He performed it for the first time publicly a few blocks from my home.
“Music ... has this ability to connect people beyond themselves as individuals,” Dexter said to me as we drank tea together across the road from the shop. “You are connecting with other people on a level that goes beyond language. And those kinds of connections are deeply important.”
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