An Irishwoman's diary: The Swallows of Capistrano

An Irishwoman’s Diary on the Old Mission at San Juan Capistrano

“Despite my vigorous protests, within seconds we’re on our way to the Old Mission at San Juan Capistrano. Swallow-shaped signposts guide us all the way and my father and uncle burst into song.”

“Despite my vigorous protests, within seconds we’re on our way to the Old Mission at San Juan Capistrano. Swallow-shaped signposts guide us all the way and my father and uncle burst into song.”


It is a sweltering April in Sunday in the San Fernando Valley. Sitting beside the pool in my uncle’s backyard there are exotic perfumes wafting on the air. I reach out and pluck a peach from a tree; eye-jewelled humming birds are pecking at the cherries as people come to the gate selling wine by the bucket-full. Suddenly the uncle appears with my dad and they insist that I come with them to the mission. Despite my vigorous protests, within seconds we’re on our way to the Old Mission at San Juan Capistrano. Swallow-shaped signposts guide us all the way and my father and uncle burst into song . . . When the Swallows come back to Capistrano .

Each of the 21 missions of California has something special to offer but apparently Capistrano tops them all with the phenomenon of the swallows.

The Mission of San Juan Capistrano was established towards the end of the 18th century by Spanish Franciscans and became a place of work and education for the native Indians. The religious rule there was strict to the point of severity but the benefit to the locals was huge.

Gradually the beautifully designed buildings grew up out of the desert.

There was a school and a church, workshops for the making of shoes, blankets, soap, candles, harnesses and other items for use in the mission or to be sold to traders. It took nine years to build and was fully operational by 1809. Three years later disaster struck in December 1812 when an earthquake reduced it to ruins.

Then in 1821 Mexico won her independence from Spain and California’s new governor was unsympathetic to the Franciscans and the mission was allowed to fall into almost total decay.

It was in 1909 that Fr John O’Sullivan, an Irish-American priest, came across the ruined mission. He was suffering from tuberculosis and had been sent to California to recover. The place so enthralled him that he vowed to restore it and in the process restored his health. To his delight he discovered the swallow phenomenon when they returned to nest in the mission on March 19th – the feast of St Joseph – and Fr Sullivan’s birthday. Thus on that day it became the tradition for his friends and neighbours to rise at dawn and sit with Fr O’Sullivan in front of the mission waiting for “The Return”.

Ornithologists studied the nesting habits of the swallows and reported that the birds, in great quantities, built their beehive nests into the crevices of the ruined mission.

In 1930, a collection of tales, legends and stories collected by Fr O’Sullivan was published. One story told of how a previous padre became angry when a local hotel owner destroyed the swallows’ nests because the birds were too noisy for his guests. The good padre somehow managed to get the birds to follow him back to the mission and they have been coming there ever since.

They migrate every autumn to Goya, Argentina, some 24,000 kilometres away to winter, and in January they begin the return flight that takes 30 days, to arrive, on March 19th, at the San Juan Capistrano Mission.

Tourists, pilgrims, archaeologists and scholars come to walk under the canopy of the restored ancient arches, view the restored ruins and listen to the mission bells. Television cameramen, radio broadcasters, newspaper reporters and magazine writers come also to report “The Return”.

Although nobody could be absolutely positive that the birds would show up on time, a radio reporter decided to cover the event live in 1936. His listeners were not disappointed when he announced “the skies are blackened with swallows” and the mission bells rang out to welcome them.

The announcement of the swallows return is printed in newspapers every year and they have become symbol of hope.

It was on March 19th, 1939, that songwriter Leon Rene was waiting impatiently for his breakfast.

“Honey,” he said, “the swallows will be back at Capistrano before my breakfast is ready.” And with those words a melody came to him. When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano was born and became a worldwide hit.

There is a little corner at the mission dedicated to the songwriter.

Although the swallows are well settled in as I write this, I know that I will remember the thousands of little birds chirping in the crevices of the Old Mission at San Juan Capistrano.

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