Northern Ireland news

Top spy George Blake's escape aided by Limerick man Sean Bourke

Limerick man Sean Bourke

BRITISH spy George Blake was sprung from London's Wormwood Scrubs prison with the help of colourful Irishman man Sean Bourke.

George Blake, who died in Russia on St Stephen's Day aged 98, was the last in a line of spies whose work for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War proved a major embarrassment to the British security services.

Limerick man Sean Bourke and others helped Blake to escape from prison in 1966, from where he fled to Moscow.

A second cousin of actor Richard Harris and a full cousin of poet Desmond O'Grady, petty criminal Bourke conspired with fellow inmates Michael Randle and Pat Pottle to spring the notorious spy to freedom.

Blake had been convicted in 1961 of spying for the Soviet Union but his fellow prisoners shared the view that his 42-year sentence was "inhuman".

Bourke, then in his early thirties, had been living in Britain for a short time when he was convicted of sending an explosive device through the post to a policeman against whom he bore a grudge.

While the bomb exploded, nobody was injured though nonetheless Bourke was sentenced to seven years in prison. While serving his time in Wormwood Scrubs, he founded and edited the prison magazine New Horizon.

It was in this role that he met George Blake and anti-nuclear campaigners Randle and Pottle, who had been imprisoned for their part in various political demonstrations.

On his release, Bourke set about masterminding Blake's escape and smuggled a walkie-talkie into the prison to communicate with the spy from the outside.

Blake made his escape while fellow inmates watched a weekly film show, climbing through the window before making his way over the perimeter wall using a rope ladder Bourke had fashioned using knitting needles.

Although Blake fell and broke his wrist scaling the wall, the escape was a success and after a period lying low, he made his way first to East Germany then onto Moscow, where he was joined soon after by the Irishman, who lived in the Russian capital for 18 months on a special 'pension' provided by the Soviet authorities.

Bourke returned to Ireland from where the British authorities unsuccessfully sought to have him extradited.

After returning to Ireland, Bourke wrote The Springing of George Blake, an account of the escape, and other books.

Plagued by ill-health and alcoholism, he ended up living in a caravan in Co Clare where he died in his late forties in 1982.

While the coroner recorded the cause of death as "acute pneumenory odema, Coronary thrombosis", former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin alleges he was poisoned on the orders of the Soviets.

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