On a wet and windy night in 1990’s Dublin, second year Arts student Gisèle Scanlon was making her way onto University College Dublin’s Belfield campus. “You wouldn’t expect the dog to be out,” Scanlon recalls of the rough weather.
The Kerry student lived on campus and was heading in to meet some friends from Dramsoc. As she walked through the dark and unpopulated area, Scanlon was attacked by a tall and dark-haired man. “This guy just came out of nowhere,” she says. “He kind of wrapped his arms around my chest [and] just dragged me to the ground […] like a rugby tackle.” She originally thought it was somebody she knew who was messing about, but soon realised her fears as this stranger tried to assault her.
Another figure quickly rushed to her aid. UCD’s resident homeless man, Michael Byrne, fondly known as ‘Old Man Belfield’, dashed in to save Scanlon. “[He] dragged the guy off me, threw him to the side, didn’t say anything and just helped me up.”
Scanlon says Byrne didn’t aggressively throw punches, but just pulled the man away and helped her to her feet. “He said nothing. I thought he would have shouted. It was all very silently done, like a zen Buddhist.” After Michael stepped in, Scanlon says her attacker “didn’t fight back” and just “scampered” away into the night.
On remembering the events of that night, Scanlon remembers Byrne’s friendly demeanour. “I was looking at him and he had the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen in a human being.”
After the danger was gone, and Scanlon’s attacker was nowhere to be seen, she walked towards her friends and Byrne “followed closely behind.” In her view he was keeping watch.
Scanlon asked her hero how she could thank him and offered him some tea with Dramsoc. “He just shook his head,” she recalls. “He was so quiet and unassuming that you really couldn’t have a conversation with him. He was just so shy.”
“It changed me”
Scanlon says the event “changed [her] whole college experience”. She now serves as President of Trinity Graduates Students’ Union and since that day has “always prioritised safety for everyone on campus.” Scanlon comments that they’re lucky most of Trinity’s campus is lit up at night.
“That incident, and him saving me like that, [has] stood to me throughout my life.” Scanlon says she doesn’t drink too much, as she doesn’t want to “be in a situation where there is no Michael.”
“Something like that does change a person.” She has now become “hypersensitive to those kinds of situations” and is thankful for Byrne’s heroic actions that night.
Three years ago, Scanlon bumped into Byrne at a bus stop in Donnybrook. She walked up to him and said: “You probably don’t remember me, but on a very windy night in UCD you were very kind to me.”
The quiet man responded in more words than usual. Scanlon remembers him smiling and saying in a “very pronounced Dublin accent”, similar to Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners: “There’s no need to be saying anything like that. These things happen.”
And with that, the two hopped on the next bus together. She got off at Leeson Street, and he continued into town. That was the last she saw of Michael Byrne.
Byrne sadly passed away last month on the grounds of UCD. His death prompted a wave of love and support from UCD students and alumni, with stories emerging of his small but significant acts of kindness over the years.
“My heart stopped when I saw he had died. Just for a second.” Scanlon has a lot of respect for Byrne and believes he “must have been so full of wisdom.”
“Michael is really summed up in the term: Actions speak louder than words. And I always think of that term when I think of Michael.”
The university has set up The Michael Byrne Community Fund which will support scholarships for underrepresented students with socioeconomic disadvantages, community initiatives at UCD and an annual student award that recognises community-building. You can donate to the fund here.
Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter