Jean Bleakney

Out to Tender by Jean Bleakney

‘Out to Tender’ explores the uneasiness felt by many during the 1994 ceasefire in Northern Ireland and expresses their fear and doubt.

Jean Bleakney’s ‘Out to Tender‘ explores a transitional moment in Northern Ireland’s recent past after the IRA ceasefire in 1994. The poem conjures the atmosphere of the period, typified by skepticism and doubt despite the rhetoric that the worst was now behind for the people of Northern Ireland.

Out to Tender by Jean Bleakney


Summary

Out to Tender‘ offers a personal insight into the everyday experience of people in Northern Ireland around the time of the 1994 ceasefire.

The poem begins by describing the new improvements being made to the local infrastructure but these improvements only bring the subsequently revealed damages into focus. The poem thereby focuses on the real, tangible process of rebuilding a nation that had suffered terrible conflict rather than merely addressing the speeches and decrees that were in the news at the time.

The poem goes on to lament these words, especially when they are not accompanied by actions. As the stanzas progress, the tone grows increasingly abstract as it ponders what it means to be moderate in an environment that demands partisan behavior. The poem ends with a degree of cynicism as the narrator doubts whether the same people who waged violence are capable of sustaining peace.

Context

Jean Bleakney was born in Northern Ireland in 1956 and she attended Queen’s University in Belfast to study biochemistry in her youth. Bleakney took the decision to stop working after the birth of her second child but found the reality of life at home to be mundane and took up gardening as a hobby. Through her newfound hobby, Bleakney developed an interest in the language of nature and began attending writing classes. She published her first collection, The Ripple Tank Experiment, from which ‘Out to Tender‘ is taken, in 1999. She has since published two more full-length collections and her work is regularly anthologized. Bleakney grew up during the period of violence known as The Troubles and, while she has said that she did not want to explicitly address it in her poetry, she decided she could no longer ignore its impact on her surroundings.

The ceasefire of 1994 was one of the most pivotal moments in the Northern Ireland Peace Process which culminated in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The process brought years of violence to a halt but left the unenviable task of re-establishing trust between communities that had been ravaged by the conflict for a generation.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

All along the motorway
they’re resurfacing and bridge-strengthening
and seeding the central reservation
with wild flowers.

The opening stanza focuses on improvements being made to infrastructure shortly after the commencement of the ceasefire. These improvements may be read metaphorically as they could represent the need to strengthen the foundations of a nation that had been torn apart by years of fighting. However, Bleakney could simply be reminding the readers that, in spite of the positive words from politicians, the country needed a real and urgent change after the conflict had consumed everything else and other, more mundane things had fallen by the wayside.

The symbolism of the wildflowers in the central reservation is significant as flowers have positive connotations of beauty, love, and peace. Bleakney implies that these qualities will be necessary to heal the rifts that had emerged between families and religious groups, represented by the two sides of the motorway.

Stanza Two

But only an hour or so ahead
(…)
to unmendable potholes.

The earlier improvements are immediately juxtaposed by the state of the roads only one hour further along the narrator’s journey. The reference to the hour is significant as it emphasizes the scale of the suffering in Northern Ireland and therefore the size of the challenge that sustaining peace would present. Furthermore, it showcases how one was never more than an hour away from signs of violence.

The writer uses hyperbole in the final line when describing the potholes as “unmendable” which subverts the readers’ expectations, given that the ceasefire was considered an opportunity to heal. This reflects the cynicism of the people at the time, who had grown so used to the conflict that they could not envision a time when its wounds would ever be healed.

Stanza Three

And there are places where the light
(…)
are irrevocably pleached.

These lines feature an extended metaphor of “pleached” branches that cannot be cut back. The narrator uses this as another way of highlighting how the declaration of a ceasefire was meaningless as the memories of the conflict are so deeply entangled that they cannot return to anything resembling normality. This pessimistic view is reinforced by the fact that the light cannot break through the branches, suggesting that the narrator feels hope cannot penetrate the darkness of The Troubles. However, it could be argued that the conjoining of the branches into a cohesive whole foreshadows the healing of the communities that were torn apart.

Stanzas Four-Five

The whole talk these days is about words;
the glitzy newly-honed nouns
(…)
with reference to particular definitions
and in deference to the vernacular

These lines address the futility of words without action by mocking their usage and treating them with scorn, implying the narrator feels their politicians’ words are empty. The adjective “glitzy” implies the pronouncements of peace are superficial and that nothing will really change. Likewise, the plosive alliteration in the third line of stanza four evokes a sense of bitterness and anger to showcase Bleakney’s views on the prospect of lasting peace.

Stanza five mocks the language that asserts peace by deliberately using more obscure and vague terms, thereby undermining the value of those assertions entirely. This is coupled with the use of the embedded rhyme in lines two and three which creates a playful tone, almost mirroring a child’s nursery rhyme. This has the effect of compromising the speeches and claims made by those that were responsible for the ceasefire.

Stanza Six

There are townlands where parameters
(…)
when you’re the whole road.

Bleakney continues to erode the validity of language by suggesting that parameters “decline to perimeters” in spite of their similar definitions. This suggests that the narrator feels it is possible for a situation to appear worse even if the circumstances have not changed which further indicates she feels the ceasefire will change little if the realities of the situation remain unaltered.

She then uses a metaphor to show the difficulty in presenting as a moderate in the conflict, which demanded that everybody in Northern Ireland make their allegiances known. She suggests that it is nonsensical to be asked which aspect of the nation she aligns herself with as she would like to respond with all of it. Finally, the use of the direct address creates an accusatory tone to mirror the intense pressure to commit to one side of the conflict or the other.

Stanza Seven

Here come the cowboy landscapers
with their quick-fix Castlewellan Golds.
As an old Fermanagh woman would’ve said,
The same boys can do feats and shite wonders.

The poem ends with the narrator expressing their doubt about the work of local landscapers, who she feels have selected a plant poorly. This functions as a metaphor for her lack of faith in the politicians who were tasked with making and sustaining peace. The poem ends with the words of a local woman, reminding the reader that it was ordinary people that would have to live through the new ceasefire and its success would ultimately depend on them. The oxymoronic “shite wonders” mirrors the uneasy state of the nation which, whilst experiencing an uneasy peace, still bore all the marks of recent conflict.

FAQs

What are “Castlewellan Golds”?

Castlewellan Golds are a type of fast-growing hedge but one that quickly becomes difficult to manage. Like many conifers, they struggle to survive adverse weather conditions. Bleakney thereby likens them to the ceasefire, which came about quickly but she thought would struggle to survive for long.

What does “pleached” mean?

When branches become “pleached” it means they have become entwined with one another to form a hedge. As the analysis mentions, the pleaching branches in this poem can be interpreted both positively and negatively.

What was the 1994 ceasefire?

Long-standing talks between Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin and John Hume of the SDLP amounted to a series of joint statements on how peace might be achieved in early 1994. With the support of many within and outside of Northern Ireland, a conditional ceasefire was declared. Ultimately though, it was broken in 1996 after a series of IRA bombings in London and Manchester.

What does the title, ‘Out to Tender‘ mean?

If somebody puts work out to tender it means they are encouraging people to make offers to do it. In this poem, this could refer to the workman on the motorways or the haphazard landscapers in the final paragraph. More broadly though, Bleakney could have used it to suggest that people in authority were out of ideas and were shirking their responsibilities onto others.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Out to Tender‘ might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:

Some other poems that may be of interest include:

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About
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.
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