11 March 2011

Turn of Phrase: Life of Reilly

The Reilly Coat Of Arms
The Reilly Coat of Arms by Cameron Reilly

When I asked for suggestions about what phrase I should research for this week's Turn of Phrase, my boyfriend, Nick, suggested "life of reilly." I'd never heard the phrase, so I had to ask to him to explain what it meant. Dictionary.com defines "life of reilly" as "a carefree, comfortable, and thoroughly enjoyable way of living." Sounds good to me! When I googled the phrase"life of reilly", I found a pub in Baltimore, an article in ESPN, a movie, and a blogger-author of The Life of Reilly, "in-depth analysis of the Spider-Man Clone Saga," all on the first page of listings. What I want to know is: Who's Reilly?

The general consensus is that the phrase "life of reilly" originated from an 1880's song by Pat Rooney. The Phrase Finder says:
For example, there's the 1883 song, popularised by the Irish/American singer Pat Rooney - Is That Mr. Reilly? It included in the chorus "Is that Mr. Reilly, of whom they speak so highly?". Like most other Irish songs of the era, it played to the Irish audience - this one with a dash of anti-Chinese racism thrown in for luck (the Chinese were 'Reilly's' principal competitors for manual work in the USA at the time). 
This presumes that "Reilly" is a generic term referring to an Irish man, sort of a "John Doe" name, if you will.

Michael Quinion presents another theory: "H L Mencken suggested as an alternative possible source The Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly, which was written by Lawlor and Black at about the same period as Pat Rooney’s song."

According to The Phrase Finder,

The phrase originated in the Irish/American community of the USA, in the early part of the 20th century. The first printed citation of it that I have found is from the Connecticut newspaper The Hartford Courant, December 1911 - in a piece headed 'Bullet Ends Life of Famous Wild Cow':
The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After "living the life of Riley" for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.
The Phrase Finder says that the quotations indication the coining of a phrase unfamiliar to the general readership. The writer suggests that the phrase was coined by Irish-American immigrants, but that explanation doesn't make sense to me. There still has to have been a Reilly on whom the original phrase was based, right?

Perhaps there was.

A post by Dave Reilly on The Phrase Finder recounts a family story he says has been passed down through many generations:

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.

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". 
 This beginning of this story is actually a variation of the Myth of the Hand of Ulster. There are several variations of the myth, but the general theme is that there is a contest between two or more men, either for land or, more commonly, the hand of a beautiful maiden (which, thinking on it, probably included some land, too). There is always race. In Dave Reilly's story the men are traveling by boat, but, generally, it is a swimming race. When one man realizes he is about to lose, he severs his hand and tosses it ashore, thereby winning the race. (There's a slightly different version of the Reilly story here.)

Do I believe that a brother Reilly lopped off his hand during a race in order to win some land? No, since it seems logistically, if not physically, impossible. More plausible, however, is the second half of Dave Reilly's story about the legal tender of the Reilly family. So, whether or not the hand story is true, the idea of a powerful family in Ireland with their own source of currency seems a far more likely origin for the phrase "life of reilly."

In fact, buried in a forum at wordorigins.org, I found a reference to an 1856 document that seems to lend credence to this part of the story. The book, digitized by google, is Willy Reilly and his dear Coleen Bawn: A Tale, Founded upon Fact by William Carleton. The story is about a handsome, young Catholic Irishman who falls for a Protestant heiress. 

The story is based on two historical figures in Irish history and led to the creation of many a bawdy ballad in Ireland during the time period that the story was popular. Many of the results of that oral tradition have been lost to the ages, but Carleton one such song in the preface: "Willy Reilly." The gist of the song is that Willy Reilly is imprisoned for being in the possession of  diamonds belonging to Colleen after the pair run away together. 

The girl's father says:

Good my Lord, he stole from her her diamonds and her rings,
Gold watch and silver buckles, and many precious things, 
Which cost me in bright guineas more than five hundred pounds. 
I will have the life of Reilly should I lose ten thousand pounds.

Colleen protests, saying she gave the jewelry to Reilly as a token of her affections, and the prisoner is released upon her word. The two move overseas, marry, and have children. I'd say that a man with a rich and beautiful wife is surely living a pretty good life, so it's possible that the phrase "life of reilly" gained popularity based on the life of this couple. 

Certainly Irishmen (and women!) who heard these songs where they were younger could have shared the ballads with their children, which could explain how the phrase crossed the Atlantic and ended up in the Hartford Courant. If anyone ever asks you about the origins of the phrase, "life of reilly," you now have a pretty good answer. Sure, it's an outdated phrase now, one you are unlikely to hear in everyday vernacular, I'd suspect, but it's a pretty interesting story anyway, right?

If you liked reading this, join me next Friday as I research another phrase and share my results with you. Want to know where your favorite word or phrase came from? Leave me a comment and you might see your word/phrase in a future Turn of Phrase feature. 


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