An Irishman’s Diary about ‘Altman the Saltman’

Was this the real-life Leopold Bloom (or one of them)?

Robert Altman (sixth from left) in 1906. He has emerged in recent years as a plausible model for one of the most venerated characters in literature, Leopold Bloom

Robert Altman (sixth from left) in 1906. He has emerged in recent years as a plausible model for one of the most venerated characters in literature, Leopold Bloom

 

There came to Dublin in the mid-19th century a Hungarian Jewish family called Altman. And I don’t know if theirs was an example of nominative determinism – a recurring theme in this column. But in any case, despite early business dealings in both hat manufacture and coal, the family became most famous as importers of salt, leading to an inevitable nickname.

The best-known “Altman the Saltman” was Albert, a son of the founder who by close of century had a thriving business on Dublin’s Bridgefoot Street, around the corner from his home on Usher’s Island.

Salt was big business then and the Altmans had an international reputation for quality. They even won an award at the 1893 Chicago world fair where, inter alia, the many applications of their products were increased by the unveiling of a revolutionary new machine, the electric dishwasher.

But it wasn’t just dishes Albert Altman was helping clean up. When he ran, unsuccessfully, in the Dublin municipal elections of 1901 (beaten heavily for the Usher’s Quay ward by a wine and spirit merchant called “Lawless”), The Irish Times reported that the saltman used his podium speech to allege large-scale voter fraud.

He had stood, and would stand again, the paper paraphrased him saying, “for the purpose of purifying a shameful system of personation [...] evidenced that day by the arrest of not less than 10 people”. And indeed, Altman did subsequently win a seat.

The saltman’s colourful personality extended to his private life. A man who appears not to have taken religion very seriously, he was expelled from the local synagogue for exogamy after first marrying a Catholic from Cork, Susan O’Reilly.

When she died, he married a Protestant, Victoria Corbett, in Belfast. And any scandal about the mixing of religions in the latter case was overshadowed by their age difference. He was 44 and she was only 17, a fact that caused his daughter Mimi to leave home.

As for his own beliefs, he is known to have admired Charles Bradlaugh – a devout atheist who founded Britain’s National Secular Society – while also subscribing to the Jewish Encyclopaedia. But in politics, he had a narrower focus. A radical nationalist, he supported the Irish language revival, Gaelic games, self-sufficiency, and temperance.

He was close to Arthur Griffith, who endorsed him (and James Connolly) in the 1903 elections. And that same year, as a member of Dublin Corporation, Altman voted against a motion to welcome King Edward VII to the city, helping defeat the proposal by a margin of three.

But perhaps the most important thing about Altman the Saltman, at least for fans of James Joyce and his writings, is that he has emerged in recent years as a plausible model for one of the most venerated characters in literature, Leopold Bloom. And in some ways, this should be no surprise, since it’s well established that Bloom is a composite of various sources, from whom the magpie-like author of Ulysses took what he needed.

Even so, these things create great excitement, and controversy, in the Joycean community. So when a full exposition of Altman’s claim to a shareholding in Bloom is outlined in the impending 2015 issue of the Dublin James Joyce Journal, it is sure of close reading on many university campuses around the world.

Jointly authored by his great grand-nephew, Vincent Altman O’Connor (my source for most of this information), by Vincent’s second-cousin Yvonne Altman O’Connor – a curator at the Irish-Jewish museum – and by Dr Neil R Davison of Oregon State University, the article will be out well in time for Bloomsday. But Joycean forensics is a notoriously painstaking discipline, and I predict the scene of any new evidence will be cordoned off for months afterwards, as expert sift the clues.

One thing that can be said with certainty about Altman is that he was not around on the original Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904. He had died, aged about 55, the previous November.

And although there was no suggestion of foul play (the certified cause was diabetes), Altman’s demise did follow with suspicious rapidity upon his revelations about the fiscal arrears of “at least eleven” city councillors, a charge that led to a rush of lawyers settling clients’ accounts at the Rates Office. In any case, the now-silenced Saltman was soon afterwards conveyed to his final resting place, Glasnevin, where he is said to retain one further distinction to this day, as the cemetery’s only non-baptised Jew.

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