Antoine D’Esca: first professor of French and German at Trinity College Dublin (1775-1784).

Two professorships of modern languages were established at Trinity College Dublin during the provostship of John Hely-Hutchinson (1774-1794), one to teach French and German, and the other Spanish and Italian, although a degree course was not instituted until 1873. Attendance at the lectures was optional and students paid an extra fee for them. In 1775 Antoine D’Esca was appointed to teach French and German, and R. Antonio Vieyra Transtagano, a Portuguese emigré from London and author of a Portuguese English dictionary, was appointed to teach Italian and Spanish.[1] The two professors were granted honorary degrees of LL.B. by the college on their appointment.[2]

Antoine D’Esca’s background is obscure: born c.1732, his burial record at the French non-conformist church of Peter Street states that he was from Berlin.[3] This suggests that D’Esca was descended from an exiled Huguenot family, as Berlin was the centre of Huguenot life in Prussia with the number of French exiles there put at c.6,600 in 1750.[4] It also suggests a reason for his having been chosen to teach the combination of French and German languages.

John Rocque, An exact survey of the city and suburbs of Dublin (London, 1756), Peter Street French Church is marked FC. Robert Pool and John Cash, Views of the most remarkable public buildings, monuments and other edifices in the city of Dublin (Dublin, 1780).

D’Esca’s main interest, however, seems to have been in French, to the neglect of his German studies. Monies were granted to him from time to time to purchase stock for the college library, which were mainly spent on French books. In 1781 he was awarded £11.7s.6d. to cover a subscription to an edition of Voltaire’s works.[5] This corresponds exactly to the price of the twelve volume quarto set of Voltaire’s Oeuvres with plates, advertised by Luke White, the Dublin bookseller, in November 1777.[6]

It has been claimed that D’Esca left no academic impression on the college. This might well have been the case, especially given the nature of the appointment, to teach French and German as an additional accomplishment to what were held to be the essentials of a solid education. McDowell and Webb considered the early professors of modern languages as no more  than ‘licensed grinders’ who had to ‘supplement their slender salary and the small income they derived from undergraduates’ fees by taking in other pupils from outside the college’; they saw them as ‘language teachers of no literary pretensions’.[7]


Hibernian Journal, 1-4 June 1781.

However, a copy of Voltaire’s Letters curieuses et intéressantes in the British Library shows D’Esca to have been the compiler and editor.[8] The titlepage gives the editor as the cryptic ‘M.A.D.’ The volume was printed in Dublin by William Hallhead and advertised as a new book in June 1781 at 5s.5d. bound or 4s.10½d. sewed, rising by July 1781 to 5s.11½d. bound or 5s.5d. sewed.[9] The Avertissement in the book is dated ‘Trin.Col. 26me Mars’. The copy in the British Library was the property of Henry George Quin, presented to him ‘by the Editor Monsieur D’Esca’ and dated 1781 in manuscript on the flyleaf. It was Quin’s practice to sign all his books ‘Hen: Geo: Quin’ with the date of purchase, or in this case of presentation.[10]

Quin entered Trinity in 1776, graduating in 1781; he may well have attended D’Esca’s lectures while at college. He was a keen book collector and bequeathed his core collection of 110 treasures to the college.[11] The copy of Lettres curieuses et intéressantes was part of his larger library and therefore not part of the bequest. In 1891 the sale catalogues of the book auctions which he attended were presented to Trinity College Library and Veronica Morrow notes that Quin books turn up on the market from time to time.

In spite of his modest salary D’Esca himself was an avid collector of books, especially in French. After his death on 26 December 1784 they were sold at auction by James Vallance, the sale continuing from the 13 until at least the 25 February 1786. The sale consisted of the libraries of ‘Anthony Desca late professor of French and German in Trinity College Dublin, and another gentleman’. More than 5,000 volumes were involved, ‘being the best collection in that line ever offered to sale by auction in this kingdom.’[12] Unfortunately no copy of the auction catalogue seems to have survived.

D’Esca’s commitment to the French language is clear and his purchase of Voltaire’s works for the library in 1781 is testimony to his interest in Voltaire in the year of the publication of his own edition of the Lettres. He was also aware of forthcoming editions of Voltaire as he states in the Avertissement that he hopes ‘que l’on inserera celles [letters] de M. de Voltaire dans l’édition de ses Oeuvres que Mr Panckoucke fait imprimer.’ It is not known what his lectures were like nor how he influenced or encouraged his students in the learning of the French language and the appreciation of its literature.

This note was first published in Long Room, 38 (1993), pp 18-19.

Images courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive ( )

[1] Anthony Vieyra Transtagano, A dictionary of the Portuguese and English languages (London, printed for J. Nourse, 1773), ESTC T82137. R. Antonio Vieyra Transtagano (1712-1797) was teacher of Latin and Arabic in London before his appointment to Trinity College.

[2] G. D. Burtchaell and T. U. Sadleir eds, Alumni Dublinenses (Dublin, 1935); M M. Raraty, ‘The chair of German at Trinity College, Dublin, 1755-1866, Hermathena, 102-105 (1966-7), p. 54.

[3] T. P. Lefanu ed., Registers of the French non-conformist churches of Lucy Lane and Peter Street, Dublin (Aberdeen, Publications of the Huguenot Society of London, XIV, 1901), p.125.

[4] Stefi Jersch-Wenzel, ‘De l’importance des Huguenots dans l’économie: l’example de Magdebourg’ in M. Magdelaine et R. von Thadden, Le refuge Huguenot (Paris, 1985), p.186.

[5] Raraty, p. 54.

[6] Hibernian Journal, 3-5 November 1777.

[7] R. B. McDowell and D. A. Webb, Trinity College Dublin 1592-1952: an academic history (Cambridge, 1982), pp 57-8.

[8] Letters curieuses et intéressantes de Monsieur de Voltaire, et de plusieurs autres personnes, distinguées par leur rang & par leur mérite. Avec des reflexions & des notes par M.A.D. (à Dublin, chez W. Hallhead, 1781), ESTC T154631.

[9] Hibernian Journal, 1-4 June 1781. Saunder’s News Letter, 7 July 1781.

[10] Veronica Morrow, ‘Bibliotheca Quiniana: a description of the books and bindings in the Quin Collection in the library of Trinity College Dublin’, University of London thesis for Diploma in Librarianship 1970.

[11] Veronica Morrow, ‘Bibliotheca Quiniana’, in Peter Fox ed., Treasures of the library, Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, 1986), pp 184-96.

[12] Dublin Journal, 4-7 February 1786; 23-25 February 1786.