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Irish Boxty Potato Cakes and The Potato Famine: One Million To Remember

Updated on April 13, 2011

The Pogues - Old Pictures of the Famine

Irishman Making Boxty

Glen Hansard - In Irish- Our beautiful lost language

Peasant Food for your Family

My Irish grandmother made this recipe on a cast-iron pan over an open turf fire. Boxty (pronounced Bocshthy) is a potato recipe that originated in North Connaught and Southern Ulster. My family is from the Mayo and Roscommon counties in Ireland. These were a staple in Connaught household for centuries. Especially known as a man's favorite meal alongside black pudding, fresh eggs and hot tea. This old rhyme says it all:

Boxty on the griddle,

Boxty in the pan,

If you don't cook Boxty,

You'll never have your man.

The traditional Irish Boxty recipe from my grandmother's family is simple and delicious. Potato, onion, flour, salt, and butter are the ingredients. We don't mess with perfection in our house. Simple is better. The distinction of this potato pancake recipe is in the fine-grating of the spuds and the onion. If you have a food-processor, the prep will be quick and easy. The consistency should be smooth and mushy, not grated. If you grate the prayties by hand, expect it to take a while. Use the finest side of the grater. Don't take any shortcuts, or you end up with hash-browns, not Boxty. The potato mixture will quickly turn brown if you let it sit around too long. Fry your Boxty as soon as possible after grating.

Many Boxty recipes add an equal amount of leftover mashed potatoes and buttermilk. My grandmother's traditional recipe did not. The ingredients are simple, but the result is perfection. Please use whole butter for frying. Cast iron for frying is preferable. The aroma of a turf fire would be perfect, but we can't have everything. Enjoy!

This simple peasant food has cousins around the world. Almost every culture has their own version of the potato pancake if the potato was their starch-base in their diet historically. Our ancestors took the lowly potato and made these tasty dishes to feed their families. The potato was the staple in many diets. There are those who believe, including myself, that our genetic make-up will respond positively if we eat the foods of our forefathers. Of course, we also have to be as physically active as they were. So, eat the foods of your ancestors and see how your body responds. Usually, this consists of a small amount of meat and a larger portion of vegetables and starch.

Boxty is a simple, affordable meal that both children and adults will love. Children love to mix the potato mixture. You will find that you won't be able to make these fast enough to feed your familyT cooked, Boxty can be made, refrigerated, and reheated.

But, why do I mention the potato famine? The Great Hunger (in Irish: An Gorta Mor) was a potato famine in Ireland between 1845 - 1850. I know that this may seem like old news, but we can still learn lessons from the horrible events in our past.

The famine led to the death of 1 million people over the five year period. In my family's part of the country, 28% of the population died. Sometimes I wonder how my family survived. I suppose survivor's guilt is inbred in anyone whose ancestors lived. I wonder how they turned the starving away from the door. Did they drive them away? Did they become insular and selfish in their self-preservation? Did the anger toward the occupying power destroy them for generations?

The potato was the staple in the diet of the Irish peasants. Most of the land was used for grazing cattle by the English landlords. The cattle was then exported to England. What land was left was used by the Irish tenants to farm the potato crop for their own survival. During the famine, records show that exports increased from the country. When the potato blight destroyed the only food source, the landowners failed to help. This legacy of inaction, whether intentional or not, scarred the Irish-English relationship thereafter.

We in today's Western World should see this as a lesson. As in the Holocaust, inaction may illicit as much anger as action. When we fail to protect those under our responsibility, we are just as guilty as those who commit the crime. For example, parents who allow abuse of their children by their partners are as guilty of the crime themselves. Corporations who sacrifice safety for profit cannot use ignorance as a scapegoat. Politicians whose ambiition over-rides the good of the country sacrifice their constitutents.

I like to believe that we are all as strong as this plant. Any disease that comes our way will not hold us back forever. The potato is a lowly, plain, but incredibly tenacious plant. It grows in rocks. The worst soil is their home. But, when potatoes are harvested, they can satisfy the greatest hunger.

Boxty Ingredients:

  • 10 medium floury potatoes washed and peeled (Idaho or russet are preferable)
  • 1 medium onion washed and peeled (optional)
  • 8 oz. flour or as needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • butter for the pan


  • Finely grate the potatoes using the smallest side of the grater.

  • The consistency should be smooth.

  • Finely grate the onion.

  • Drain the potato using a strainer or a dish-towel.

  • Add the onion. Mix.

  • Add the salt. Mix.

  • Add flour depending on the amount of water in the mixture.

  • The Boxty should not be dry and floury.

  • The consistency should be wet.

  • Heat your buttered pan over high heat.

  • Spoon a Boxty pancake into the pan. Flatten down for a thin cake.

  • Turn the heat down to medium high.

  • Fry on both sides until golden brown.

  • Serve hot off the griddle with butter and salt.


An equal amount of leftover mashed potato may be added with buttermilk or whole milk for a variation on the traditional recipe. If using mashed potato and milk, add baking powder for fluffy cakes.

Parsley, thinly sliced scallion or chives, garlic or other spices as desired may be added to the mixture.


Hot, strong, black tea with whole milk and sugar should accompany the Boxty.

If you are the cook, expect to continue this process until all are satisfied.


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