Posted by David S. Riley on November 18, 2002
Subject: The life of Riley
*Living on my Reillys, Rileys,etc
Back when the Rileys were top of the pile, a family coat of arms used
to mean something --like a logo supposedly for genetic material. It
can be viewed as an abstract representation of a double helix. But
when yours is a severed orange hand dripping blood the impression
sure wasn't romantic. In Ireland severed hands were an emblematic
dime a dozen. Them Celts knew the shock value of body parts.
However, ours, if I can claim such lineage, had a great story
attached to it. The Riley bros were told by their da that the one who
touched Irish land first got their choice of the countryside. So in
rowing to shore -- as some sort of boat race was involved -- one of
the lads saw that he was slipping behind his sibling(s). Rather than
miss out on the chance of a lifetime, junior hacked off his own hand
and threw it ahead onto the beach. And the winner, by a bloodied fist
is... So the Rileys grasped County Cavan in the open palm of a
severed hand thereby learning a lesson or two about sibling rivalry.
I live on to tell the story at some time and distance from its
This quaint episode of family life doesn't enlighten us about the
most perplexing aspect of Riley folklore: the origin of the phrase
"living the life of Riley". Every now and then someone is sure to
write to me with just such a query. Until now, I haven't been able to
help them. Fortunately, an American who takes his Rileyness more
seriously than I has supplied me with the following explanation.
After the incident with the hand the Rileys consolidated their "hold"
(sic) on County Cavan. As befits such clannishness they minted their
own money. This money was widely recognised for its value, even in
England it was accepted as Legal Tender.* The coins became known as
"O'Reillys, or Reilly's", and as such, became synonymous with a
monied person. A gentleman freely spending his cash was said to be
"Living on his Reillys" or "Living the life of Reilly".
So if I had 15 Rileys, spent four at the market and gave three away,
how many Rileys would I have left? [R15-R4 = R11. R11-R3=R8.] And if
I bought a pint of Guinness for myself then shouted the whole bar, I
truly would be "a gentleman freely spending his cash" . And no doubt,
there would be very few Rileys left.
This no doubt explains why I am stuck with the name and am always out
of cash. It is in the nature of us Rileys to spend like a man without