Posted by James Briggs on November 18, 2002
: : : Subject: The life of Riley
: : : Dave 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
: : : occurrence.
: : : 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
: : : any hands.
: : : Dave Riley
: : Wow! That's quite a story. We've discussed this phrase before but I couldn't find it in the archives. Here are my notes from the previous discussion. Other regulars had additional details.
: : The "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997) mentions the Pat Rooney routine in the 1880s and the song "The Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly," written "by Lawlor and Blake toward the turn of the century," as possible sources of the phrase. Mr. Hendrickson also lists a third theory: "Yet the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) may just lend his name in some way to the saying. Riley's simple, sentimental poems depicting the lives of barefoot boys loafing and living a life of ease in the summer were immensely popular at the time the phrase came into use." And "Life of Riley" was the title of a radio show and a TV show:
: : http://www.mbcnet.org/ETV/L/htmlL/lifeofriley/lifeofriley.htm
: : The Life of Riley, an early U.S. television sitcom filmed in Hollywood, was broadcast on NBC from 1949-50 and from 1953-58. Although the program had a loyal audience from its years on network radio (1943-1951), its first season on television, in which Jackie Gleason was cast in the title role, failed to generate high ratings. William Bendix portrayed Riley in the second version and the series was much more successful, among the top twenty-five most watched programs from 1953-55. Syndicated in 1977, the series was telecast on many cable systems.
: : http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/Stage/2950/epg1/LifeOfRiley.htm
: : THE LIFE OF RILEY -- DuMont Television, produced by Tom McKnight and Irving Brecher for
: : NBC. U.S. comedy series 1953-58 217 episodes x 30 min bw. starring William Bendix as Chester A. Riley (1953-1958) . Riley worked in an aircraft plant in California, but viewers usually saw him at home, cheerfully disrupting life with his malapropisms and ill timed intervention into minor problems. His stock answer to every turn of fate became a catch phrase: "What a revoltin' development this is!"
: 'Them Celts' certainly knew the shock value of a particular body part but the severed hand wasn't it. They much preferred severed human heads.
: The raised severed red right hand was the heraldic symbol of the Uí Néills of Ulster in the 12th century and became a symbol for all of Ulster in the 17th century. There are several versions of the boat race, all involving an individual who severs his hand and casts it ashore so he can claim the territory for his clan or tribe. Among the claimants are the O'Neills, MacDonnels from Scotland, and even the Vikings. Like most myths, the story remains just that - a myth.
Here's what I posted in the past - probably lost in the Great Disk Crash of 2002!
There's no generally accepted origin that I can find, other than that it somehow relates to Irishmen. However, there is one distinct possibility that goes back to the time of the Victorian music hall. One of the popular songs of the time was about an Irishman named O'Reilly who dreamed of making a fortune and then leading a life of luxury. The song was called 'Are you the O'Reilly' in which the audience joined in the chorus, ending up with the last line which was 'Cor blimey, O'Reilly, you are looking well'. My earliest certain reference to the actual phrase is in a 1919 song 'My name is Kelly', clearly based on well established usage.
See also: the meaning and origin of the phrase 'the life of Riley'.