SEÁN BOURKE and George Blake were an odd couple. They were prison mates in Wormwood Scrubs.
In 1961, Blake was ‘sent down’ for being a KGB spy. He was a cool cat. “George was very self-contained. He did yoga,” says Michael Randle, who was in prison with him, serving a year for anti-nuclear campaigning. “He was in for 42 years, the longest sentence in British penal history. You couldn’t imagine what that was like. It was like a death sentence. Whenever a young prisoner complained about being in for four or five years, the screws would point over at George and say, ‘See ’im, he’s doing 42 years. Do your bird like he’s doing his bird’.”
Bourke, a Limerick man, was thrown out of the RAF for alleged theft. He got five years for sending a letter bomb to a policeman trailing him for burglaries. The bomb exploded in front of the policeman, but he was uninjured. Inside the bomb, Bourke had scrawled a message, a misspelling of the Latin for ‘rest in peace.’
When Bourke was released, he planned to spring Blake. He smuggled him a walkie-talkie, and a car-jack so Blake could break open the bars on the gothic windows at the end of section D.
On the evening they arranged to make the prison break, Oct 22, 1966, Blake burrowed his way out of the gothic window and waited in the yard for Bourke to throw over a rope ladder. With it, he climbed the 25-foot prison wall but broke his wrist from the jump onto the pavement on the other side, where Bourke was waiting with a getaway car.
As they sped towards Bourke’s bedsit, a mile away, Bourke rear-ended a car but didn’t wait to make amends with the unfortunate, other driver. Once they got to his digs, Bourke sent word to Randle and Pat Pottle, another peacenik who had been inside with them, to let them know that Blake was out, but that he’d injured his wrist.
Randle talked Bourke out of bringing the most wanted man in England to a hospital, and, instead, lined up a sympathetic ‘anarchist’ doctor who patched him up and provided painkillers.
They moved Blake around from one safe house to the next. Bourke’s wild streak, exacerbated by his boozing — a side to him that the debonair Blake, in particular, hadn’t reckoned with — was unsettling for his co-conspirators. When they left his bedsit to move Blake to a new hideout, Bourke sent the address of the bedsit, written on the back of a passport picture of Blake, to Scotland Yard to let them know they were one step behind.
“He reminds me of Brendan Behan,” says Paddy Hayes, director of A Pal in Prison, a documentary that will broadcast tonight on TG4. “He was overweight, garrulous; he’d been in Borstal from 12 years of age. He was a drinker, a cad. He was delighted with the notoriety. He was reckless and feckless. He loved sailing close to the wind.”
Getting Blake out of the country proved difficult, as Bourke didn’t have easy access to fake passports.
“Our original plan for getting George out was that we would get a drug called meladinine,” says Randle. “We read this book called Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. He had taken this drug which changed the pigmentation of his skin, as an experiment, because he wanted to be black in the United States.
“Pat forged a doctor’s note for a prescription. I went into a chemist a day or two before the escape and got the meladinine. When George broke his wrist, there was no question of starting him on another drug straight away. George himself was not really happy about this drug either, because of the side-effects,” says Randle.
Finally, after a month of lying low, they hit on a plan to spirit Blake across the Continent by campervan. He hid in a compartment converted by a carpenter friend of Randle’s. Randle, his wife, Anne, and two children, aged three and four, came along for the ride as a young-family-on-holiday cover story. Randle had to jack up on “pills” provided by the anarchist doctor friend, so he could stay awake for round-the-clock driving until they got behind the Iron Curtain. They made it safely, managing to hand over Blake to KGB operatives in East Berlin.
Bourke mooched around for a spell until he decided to follow Blake to Moscow. The reunion didn’t go to plan. The pair fell out within a month. Bourke returned to Ireland, where he successfully fought an extradition case in 1968. He published a book in 1970, The Springing of George Blake, about his prison-break adventures for a fee of £100,000, which was enough to keep him fed and watered until his death, aged 47, in Jan, 1982.
Shortly before Bourke died in Kilkee, Co Clare, Mike Murphy interviewed him in a bar for his entertainment show, The Live Mike.
“For you it was an opportunity to get back at the establishment?” said the broadcaster.
“Yes,” replied Bourke, while nursing a large whiskey. “I was absolutely delighted, delighted absolutely. I was thrilled. I wish to God I could do it again. It was a beautiful job.”
Randle and Pottle had their names cleared in 1991. Blake, who is 89, still lives in Moscow.
* A Pal in Prison is featured on Éalú on TG4 at 10.30pm tonight