Sean Bourke

Sean Aloyisious Bourke (1934–1982) was a petty criminal from Limerick who became internationally famous when he arranged the prison escape of the British spy George Blake in October 1966, helped by Michael Randle and Pat Pottle.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] Blake had been convicted in 1961 of spying for the Soviet Union. Their motives for helping Blake to escape were their belief that his 42-year sentence was "inhuman" and a personal liking of Blake.


He was born in Limerick into a large family. Actor Richard Harris was his second cousin and poet Desmond O'Grady was his first cousin. As a boy of 12, Bourke was sentenced to three years in Daingean reformatory in October 1947 for stealing bananas from a lorry.[8] Subsequently, he trained as a bricklayer, but was frequently in trouble with the law, in part due to his alcoholism. Having moved to Britain, in 1961 he was convicted of sending an explosive device through the post to a Detective Constable Michael Sheldon, against whom he bore a grudge. The bomb exploded, but caused no injury.[9] He was sentenced to seven years in prison.[10] While in Wormwood Scrubs prison in London, he founded and edited the prison magazine, New Horizon.[9] In this role he met George Blake, who wrote contributions for the magazine. Bourke also met anti-nuclear campaigners Randle and Pottle in the prison.[11]


After his release, Bourke set about organising Blake's escape. The escape was masterminded by Bourke, who originally approached Michael Randle only for financial help. Randle, however, became more involved and suggested they bring Pottle in on the plan as well, as he had suggested springing Blake to Randle in 1962 when they were both still in prison.

Bourke had smuggled a walkie-talkie to Blake to communicate with him whilst in jail. It was decided that Blake would break a window at the end of the corridor where his cell was located. Then between 6 and 7 pm, whilst most of the other inmates and guards were at the weekly film showing, Blake could climb through the window, slide down a porch and get to the perimeter wall, where Bourke would throw a rope ladder made of knitting needles over the wall so that Blake could climb over and they would then drive off to the safe house. Blake fell from the wall during his escape and broke his wrist.[9]

After a period lying low, Bourke and the others got Blake out of the country hidden in a van. He was taken to East Germany. Shortly afterwards, Bourke joined Blake in Moscow, where he lived for a year and a half on a special 'pension' provided by the Russians.[9] However, he disliked Russia and so returned to Ireland, where he was interviewed on television.[12] Britain sought his extradition, but this was denied by the Irish courts on the grounds that arranging the escape was a political act.[13] An attempt to get him extradited on the separate charge of threatening the life of Detective Sheldon (in an abusive letter he had sent to the policemen) also failed.

Later life

After returning to Ireland, Bourke wrote The Springing of George Blake, an account of the escape.[14] He also wrote a number of articles, including a harrowing account of his time in Daingean reformatory, published in Old Limerick Journal in 1982.[8] The United Kingdom tried to have him extradited, but the Supreme Court rejected this request in 1973, ruling that Bourke's aid of Blake's escape fell within the political offence exception to Ireland's extradition laws.[15]

He rapidly spent the money he had been given by the Soviet Union and his supporters. Some of it was squandered on alcohol, but some was given away. He also gave financial support to local politician Jim Kemmy of the Democratic Socialist Party.[16] He ended up almost penniless, living in a caravan in Kilkee, suffering increasingly from alcohol-related health problems. He collapsed and died while walking down the road. The coroners gave his cause of death as "acute pneumenory odema, Coronary thrombosis". Former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin alleges otherwise, however, claiming that Bourke's death was the eventual result of a poisoning ordered by Aleksandr Sakharovsky.[17] The drug administered so as to mimic the effects of a stroke and produce brain damage, mainly erase recent memory, to prevent Bourke revealing any intelligence material on return from Moscow to GB.[18]

In culture

Sean Bourke appears as a character in Simon Gray's play Cell Mates, which tells the story of Blake's escape from Wormwood Scrubs and Bourke's subsequent visit to Moscow. In the original production Bourke was played by Rik Mayall. In the BBC Radio play "After the break" by Ian Curteis his relationship with George Blake, after his escape from Wormwood Scrubs, is examined. In it, the epilogue says that he was found dead under a cherry tree beside the Liffey

Further Information


  1. Kevin O'Connor, Blake and Bourke and The End of Empires, ISBN 0-9535697-3-X, 2003
  2. Illtyd Harrington, Forget the train robbers, this was the great escape, Camden New Journal, 29 May 2003 – while this article provides some useful details, several dates have been transcribed incorrectly
  3. Patrick Pottle, Daily Telegraph, 4 October 2000
  4. Richard Norton-Taylor, Pat Pottle, The Guardian, 3 October 2000
  5. Nick Cohen, A jailbreak out of an Ealing comedy, New Statesman, 9 October 2000
  6. Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake – and Why, ISBN 0-245-54781-9, 1989
  7. Kieran Fagan, Escape of the century – or farce?, Irish Times, 5 May 2003
  8. 1 2 Michael Byrne, Daingean Reformatory, Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society, 9 January 2007
  9. 1 2 3 4 Michael Mok, "The Irish 'Who' in a British Whodunnit", Life, 24 Jan 1969, pp.59–60
  10. Rosamund M. Thomas, Espionage and Secrecy: The Official Secrets Acts 1911–1989 of the United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 1991 p.221.
  11. Simon Gray, Cell Mates, 1995.
  12. Sean Bourke Interview (part 2) on YouTube This segment appears to intercut a 1968 interview with a British documentary and with a later RTÉ interview in which the interviewer appear to be Mike Murphy. The British documentary includes a recording which Burke made of a two-way radio conversation he had with Blake inside the prison, on 18 October 1966, four days before the escape.
  13. Extradition (Irish Republic), Hansard, 30 July 1982
  14. Sean Bourke, The Springing of George Blake, ISBN 0-304-93590-5, 1970
  15. Cantrell, Charles L. (Spring 1977). "The Political Offense Exemption in International Extradition: A Comparison of the United States, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland". Marquette Law Review. 60 (3). Retrieved 11 June 2013.
  16. Raymond Smith, Garret, the enigma: Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, Aherlow, 1985, p.58.
  17. Oleg Kalugin, The First Directorate, St. Martin's Press, 1994, p.139-40.
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