Idiom: living the life of Riley

Today we discover the origin of the idiom: living the life of Riley.

Elegant man with top hat sitting in chair

‘Living the life of Riley’ is a popular phrase, but who the heck is or was this Riley and why are we so happy to live his life?

Well, let’s begin with what this phrase actually means. To live the life of Riley is to have a happy life, without hard work, difficulty, worries or problems.

As far as who Riley is, scholars seem to be at a bit of a loss. Some argue that Riley, or ‘Reilly’, as some believe, may refer to a character mentioned in a song called Is That Mr Reilly? written by Irish American singer Pat Rooney in 1883. The song’s protagonist, Mr Reilly, says that if he ever became the President of the United States, ‘New York’ would ‘swim in wine when the White House and Capitol are mine’.

Others argue that Riley actually referred to an American poet named James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) who wrote sentimental poems about young boys lazing around in the sun without a care in the world, apparently wandering around barefooted, swimming in rivers and fishing. Sounds like a carefree existence, no?

There are plenty of mentions of characters living the life of Riley, but the Pat Rooney song seems to be the earliest mention of Mr Reilly. The closest origin of the phrase ‘living the life of Riley’ that anyone can figure is that it was brought to America by Irish immigrants, although there's no record of it being used in Ireland prior to 1918. So it seems most likely that the phrase originated in Irish American communities in the USA.

Do you have any idea of where this idiom originated? Why not share your thoughts with our members?



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    26th Aug 2016
    There was a movie "The Life of Riley" starring William Bendix in 1949 which might have something to do with it.

    26th Aug 2016
    Political news commentator on Channel Seven.
    29th Aug 2016
    Could also have been Sam Reilly, he of the Ace of Spies series,if we are to believe a fraction of what he accomplished. His was an exciting/terrifying life but he had a helluva time.

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