The origins of boxty are in dispute. Some say the word is an English corruption of the Irish arán bocht tí (bread of the poor house); others say it comes from the word bacstaí – to bake.
And while some say boxty was a famine food, made from the gratings of rotten tubers, Pádraic Óg Gallagher, proprietor of the Boxty House restaurant in Dublin’s Temple Bar, says it originated before the famine and was a “celebratory dish” rather than one associated with poverty.
Boxty – similar to potato cakes or farls but softer, and with crispy edges – was traditionally confined to north Roscommon, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan. Its geographical specificity has given impetus to a new campaign to give boxty protected geographic indication (PGI) status in Europe.
Detta McNiffe from Ballinamore says PGI status would give a boost to a food that is simple, but has huge potential.
She started by making boxty for a school bake sale. “The products sold out within seconds,” she recalls, “and I soon realised the potential that existed for true, home-made, original recipe Leitrim boxty.” McNiffes Bakery now employs 10 people in Leitrim.
Paul Farrelly in neighbouring Cavan set up his boxty business with his mother Nan 30 years ago. Drummully Boxty employs three people and supplies a gluten-free version to local shops. He says PGI status would ensure that “big manufacturers don’t come muscling in” if the product takes off.
Boxty is a metaphor for the region, according to Bord na Móna chief executive Gabriel d’Arcy, a native of Ballinamore, who believes the Border region has traditionally lacked confidence. At a recent public meeting in Longford hosted by the GAA to galvanise employment in the region, he urged local communities “to take our destiny in our own hands. We have to believe ourselves that there is a future in our communities”.
Boxty is one of several initiatives which have arisen out of the Upper Shannon-Erne Future Economy project set up by Bord na Móna and Leitrim County Council to regenerate the economy in the region.
D’Arcy says the opening of the Cavan-Leitrim light railway is another priority as part of an overall tourism package. “We have an outstanding array of lakes and rivers and canals, unrivalled with outstanding beauty. It is one of our unique strengths,” he says.
Eight years ago MBNA set up in Carrick-on-Shannon at the height of the Celtic Tiger. At its peak it employed more than 1,000 people. Here at last was an employer that was going to galvanise the whole region.
That dream died two weeks ago when MBNA announced it was closing its call centre with the loss of 160 jobs.
It’s a major blow for a regional economy, but 250 people are still employed in Carrick in financial services, and locals hope the town has sufficiently diversified to absorb the blow.
Carrick was also recently voted the hens and stags capital of Ireland. Some places might baulk at such a designation but local people are grateful for the life and business they bring to the town at weekends.
Carrick chamber president Gerry Faughnan said the lesson of MBNA is that rural communities cannot put their faith in multinationals alone. “We have to get on with other aspects for support for business,” he said.