If you’ve spent any time at University College Dublin, you’ve almost certainly seen the homeless man known affectionately by the student body as ‘Old Man Belfield’. If not, you’ve likely heard whispered stories about how he used to be a lecturer before running into hard times, or most commonly, how he stepped in to save a student from sexual assault.
‘Old Man Belfield’ is a fixture of our campus, and is welcomed and beloved by the students and staff. But considering we know so precious little for sure about him and his story, where exactly does this goodwill come from? Who is Old Man Belfield, really, and in these uncertain times, has he been cared for? What we were able to confirm, and especially what we couldn’t, adds colour and depth to the story of a bonafide living legend.
According to the current caretaker of the man, who we will refer to as Sam in the interest of privacy, his family has been looking after Old Man Belfield’s affairs for decades, including weekly visits where he picks up his pension and other basics. Despite this, even Sam knows precious little about him. While their visits are friendly, he “rarely says more than three words”, if he says anything at all. He does know, however, that his name is Michael Byrne, and that he’s approximately 72 years old. Sam’s chosen to release his name as part of his ongoing search for Michael’s family.
Before I got the chance to ask, Sam made sure to stress how good-natured Michael is, insisting that he has “not once, ever, seen [Michael] drunk”.
Sam also knows that other groups have been looking after Michael, and that a sort of informal network has formed around him. Local shopkeepers, including those at UCD, will give him food and other items. Agencies like Focus Ireland have also checked in on Michael, usually on a purely observational basis. Many times Michael has chosen to turn away aid. Sam told one story about a social worker who was able to secure Michael a space in a local housing project. During a visit, the social worker brought Michael a sandwich and a set of keys. He explained to Michael that an apartment had been set aside for him, for the rest of his days, no questions asked.
Michael took the sandwich, and left the keys. Characteristically, he provided no explanation.
Critically, Sam was unable to confirm whether Michael did actually stop an assault on campus, or any of the other stories about him. However, he did suggest that UCD administration and security has nevertheless kept a watchful eye over Michael, making sure he’s safe during inclement weather and protecting him from being pushed out of the area.
The Students’ Union shop staff indicated that he hasn’t been around much lately, and since the pandemic began he likely made shelter elsewhere. One staff member, who’s worked there for years said she’s only exchanged a handful of words with Michael, and was worried that he wasn’t aware of the ongoing pandemic.
We also spoke with Gather & Gather who have recently taken over UCD’s restaurant building, who confirmed that they will continue to provide him with meals, if and when he needs them.
Before ending our conversation, I asked Sam if there’s anything else he believed the people of Belfield should know about Michael. He paused for a moment, and then said that “[Michael is] harmless. He likes his cigarettes, but he doesn’t like to be approached, especially not by big groups. But if you see him, give him a smile, say hello.”
If you have any information about Michael’s background (especially his family), or if you have any concerns for his well being, the caretakers have asked that you please contact them through The College Tribune.
This article is from Fócas, the investigative wing of The College Tribune. Get in touch with us at [email protected]. Let us know what we should be looking into on campus.
Jack McGee – Reporter
Additional Reporting by:
Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter
Hugh Dooley – News Editor
Conor Paterson – Features Editor