Altman, Albert Liebes Lascar (c.1853–1903), businessman and nationalist politician, was born c.1853 in Prussian Poland, the son of Moritz Altman (born Shagra Moshe ben Aharon) and his wife Deborah (born Devorah bat Chaim Liebes). He was the eldest of four surviving children, with one brother (Mendal) and two sisters (Ida and Esther). His parents immigrated to Dublin in the early 1850s. Moritz was a milliner and tailor of military headgear and uniforms, who set up his home and shop at 48 Capel Street before moving both to Mary Street in 1855. The family were members of the Mary’s Abbey synagogue. After completing a religious education at the Mary’s Abbey cheder, Albert was by 1868 enrolled at the Collegiate, Nautical and Mercantile School, located at 80 Abbey Street.
From 1872, he worked with his father, whose business was by then based at 5 Pembroke Quay. Albert drove its diversification into salt refinement, storage and delivery, catering to household and industrial consumers (the Altmans also acted as coal merchants during the late 1870s and early 1880s). By the late 1870s their salt business had agents across Ireland, as well as in London, Leeds and Manchester. In February 1877 the business (operating as M. Altman and Son) was fined by the lord mayor, Hugh Tarpey, for falsifying the weights of their products. The Altmans, who felt singled-out as Jewish merchants, appealed, but the fine stood, although the authorities accepted that they had not benefitted from the alleged incorrect weighing.
At that time butter was preserved by fortifying it with large amounts of salt, and Altman developed a substantial trade in Cork city, which had a large butter industry. Attending to business contacts there pre 1880, he met Susan O’Reilly, a catholic from a Cork family of stationery merchants. They were soon married in St Finbarr’s church, within Cork’s south parish, for which Altman was expunged from the membership of the Mary’s Abbey synagogue; his younger brother Mendal had been similarly expunged in 1879 for also marrying a catholic. Albert, like Mendal, became a practising catholic, while retaining his Jewish identity (although no baptismal record for his conversion has yet been located). Albert and Susan had a son born in 1881, who died three weeks later; three years later their only surviving child, Mary Deborah, was born.
The O’Reilly family included several relatives involved in the Fenian cause, and Altman came under the influence of that movement early in his marriage; the couple maintained contact throughout their life together with Susan’s cousin, Lieutenant-colonel Denis F. Burke (1840–93), a naturalised US citizen and US civil war veteran, who was arrested and imprisoned for seven months in Ireland in 1866 for his role in planning the Fenian uprising. Reflecting Altman’s growing enthusiasm for all aspects of Irish nationalism, by 1883 he was pledging £100 annually to the national feis ceoil competition; similarly, he later supported the Gaelic League. Music was one of his passions: a devotee of classical opera, he possessed three superb pianofortes at the time of his death.
In February 1881, Moritz Altman died through accidental poisoning in Aldershot, England, having relocated there to join his daughters. By then, Albert had already taken over the Dublin salt business and proceeded, in collaboration with his brother, to further increase its reach and success; he moved it, along with his private residence, into larger premises at 11 Usher’s Island in 1884, with the salt depot extending to 39–40 Island Street. In 1888 (by which time it had agencies in America and Australia), the business expanded further into Bridgefoot Street, eventually comprising numbers 1–6. Storing thousands of tons of salt, the Bridgefoot Street depot remained for decades one of the largest in the city, as the area from the River Liffey up the hill to the depot became known as ‘Altman the saltman’s’. The Altman exhibit at the World’s Columbine Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, won a gold medal for its ‘snow white flour’ table salt. His growing wealth enabled another change of residence in 1891 to Golden Bridge House, an impressive faux-Italian structure in Inchicore.
In March 1881 he entered public life by attending the first meeting of the Arran Quay branch of the National Land League, emerging thereafter as a prominent supporter of the Land League’s activities in Dublin. That summer, he joined the newly founded Irish Home Manufacturers Association (IHMA), which promoted Irish made goods, businesses and domestic commodities. Thus, in the advertising for his businesses, he stressed that much of his salt and coal was sourced from mines within Ireland and that the bags used were Irish made. The IMHA’s original founders envisaged it as a relatively apolitical business lobby, but Altman and his political cohorts quickly took it over for the purposes of advancing a more radical nationalist agenda; he became its honorary secretary in October and later its president. James Carey (qv), one of his main allies within the IMHA, was also a secret member of the ultra-nationalist Fenian offshoot group, the Invincibles, and was tried in 1883 for his lead role in the assassinations of chief secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv), and his under-secretary, T. H. Burke (qv), in Phoenix Park (6 May 1882). Soon after, Altman and his fellow IHMA members disbanded the organisation, which had come under suspicion as connected to Fenian activities.
From 1884, Altman attempted but failed repeatedly to win a seat on the Dublin Corporation municipal council for either the Arran’s Quay or Usher’s Quay wards. Not helped by an exasperating loquaciousness in his public speaking, in each of his campaign efforts Altman was variously reviled by his adversaries as a charlatan, an egotist, a foreigner and a Jew. He was regarded, even by political allies, as erratic; his habit of considering each issue on its merits rather than cleaving rigidly to a party agenda caused many to dismiss him as an opportunist. Becoming involved in the ‘Plan of Campaign’ (1886–91), the last great movement of the Land War era, Altman gave speeches in support of tenants’ rights, led gatherings, and hosted many of the movement’s activists in his home on their release from prison. After Parnell’s death, Altman, like William O’Brien (qv), joined the Irish National Federation (INF) when the Irish Parliamentary Party split between this and the more petit-bourgeois Irish National League. By 1893, Altman was an influential shareholder and an important advertiser in the Freeman’s Journal; in the mid-1890s, he succeeded, along with John Dillon (qv), in wresting control of the paper from Parnellite factions on behalf of their own anti-Parnellite INF influence. He later joined the United Irish League (UIL) established by O’Brien in 1898.
After his marriage to O'Reilly in 1880, Altman came under the sway of the temperance crusade, as well as becoming committed to the amalgamated new union movement. He participated in labour negotiations by representing the striking workers during the 1890 coal porters’ strike, one of Dublin’s first organised labour activities; he was no longer involved in the coal business by then but was, nonetheless, one the few merchants in any trade to take the workers’ side. Positioning himself within nationalist circles as a voice of Temperance–Labour, he campaigned for office on this unpopular and underrepresented platform. In 1894 Susan Altman was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer, dying a few months later in February 1895. Subsequently, Altman met Victoria Olive Corbett, a protestant and daughter of a Scottish father and Belfast born mother; they married in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, on 7 July 1897. In 1898 they had a son, Albert George John Altman, who was raised to be, like his mother, a member of the Church of Ireland.
Latterly, Albert campaigned increasingly against the jobbery, corruption and incompetence that characterised much of the Dublin Corporation administration, prompting political opponents to condemn him for unpatriotically attacking this nationalist-controlled institution. These reformist inclinations were much in evidence following his eventual election to Dublin’s municipal council, as a UIL candidate for the Usher’s Quay ward in summer 1901; thereafter, his regular public clashes with Lord Mayor Timothy Harrington (qv) were reported as feature articles in most Dublin dailies, making Altman one of the most visible members of the council. An enthusiastic member of the corporation’s electric lighting committee and of the improvements committee responsible for upgrading the roads and installing new gas mains, he contributed also to the progress made in completing Dublin’s main drainage scheme, which established the city’s first modern drinking water and sewage systems in 1906. Arguing that public-owned utilities were a modern urban necessity, he protested the Dublin United Tramways Company’s price gouging and labour abuses, repeatedly putting forward the motion that the city should purchase the entire system outright, only to be ridiculed and defeated time and again at council meetings. He was returned to the council in the January 1902 municipal elections after narrowly defeating a Harrington-backed candidate.
In 1903 he was at the centre of the controversy wherein Dublin Corporation gave no formal welcome to the newly crowned Edward VII on his visit to Dublin. The decision caused rifts on the council during two raucous public meetings and throughout nationalist circles in the city. Most contentiously of all, he sought to reform the long-running practice of rate-payment deferments for its members – which often resulted in a tardiness that was tantamount to tax evasion. Altman’s one-man campaign led to a two-week inquiry that was extensively covered by the press in October–November 1903. The inquest concluded on 2 November with the corporation’s auditor revealing that considerable arrears had been paid; he concluded that the city would benefit from the recent proceedings.
Just two weeks after his most impactful moment as a municipal reformer, Albert Altman died on 14 November 1903 at his residence (since 1900) at 108 Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge, having been ill with early-onset diabetes for some months. He was buried in the plot he had formerly purchased for his infant son and wife in Glasnevin cemetery (Bridget’s section, no. 265). His brother Mendal took over the salt business and in 1907 was, like Altman before him, elected under the UIL banner for the Usher’s Quay ward; a far less polarising figure than his older brother, he remained on the corporation council until 1912. The Altman name was also sustained in the public eye through a civil suit brought by his widow Victoria against Altman’s estate, which appeared intermittently in the press during 1904–10. The Altman salt business then came under the majority ownership of the English firm Henry Seddon & Sons Ltd, trading thereafter as the Dublin Salt Company.
Some scholars believe Altman to be an overlooked model for the character of Leopold Bloom and his associated themes in James Joyce’s (qv) novel, Ulysses. Aspects of Altman’s Temperance–Labour activism appear in Bloom’s reputation as a teetotaller and as a working Dubliner sympathetic to skilled and unskilled labour. Like Altman, Bloom’s loss of an infant son and remorse over his father’s death frame his struggle with Jewish identity. Furthermore, the corporation’s influence on Dublin emerges as a leitmotif within the novel, while Bloom’s ideas about the city’s progress echo Altman’s projects, such as the municipal ownership of the city’s tram system. The novel also alludes to Harrington’s time in office, tardy rate payments by politicians, and the work of the Altman-led improvements committee in modernising the city’s infrastructure: the main drainage scheme and its many plumbing marvels are alluded to throughout Ulysses and in the ‘Ithaca’ episode at great length. Bloom sustains a self-consciousness about his marginality as a Dubliner with a Jewish background, despite having, like Altman, converted to catholicism. Over the course of his day, Bloom is the target of anti-Jewish stereotyping and Jew baiting; in the ‘Cyclops’ episode, he is also characterised as an annoyingly long-winded know-it-all, the precise reputation Altman earned during his political career.