Living The Life Of Riley (Reilly)

You have probably heard, watched, or read the term living the life of Riley. But who is Riley, and why does everyone want to live his life? Find out what the idiomatic expression means and its origin! I’ll also show you how to use living the life of Riley in sentences.

Living the life of Riley means living a luxurious and carefree life. If someone is living the life of Riley, it means they have a happy life with little to no worries. The idiomatic expression may be associated with a luxurious or generally pleasant life.

The term living the life of Riley is an American phrase, it first appeared in the early 1900s. There is some suggestion that the idea of a gentleman named Mr. Riley enjoying a luxurious, easy life is suggested in several earlier vaudeville songs, though the phrase living the life of Riley appears slightly later.

So, Who Was Riley/Reilly, and Why Was His Life So Enviable?

Whoever Riley or Reilly was used to be a mystery until modern databases finally revealed his identity. According to Sir Charles Duffy’s account, Reiley, not Reilly or Riley, was a hero of a once-famous American comic song in the 1800s. He said:

“There is no family under the rank of gentry in the inland counties of Ulster where [the song] is not familiarly known. Nurses and semptresses [seamstresses], the honorary guardians of national songs and legends, have taken it into special favour, and preserved its popularity.”

The lyrics of the ballad goes:

“Oh! rise up, Willy Reilly, and come along with me,

I mean to go with you and leave this counterie,

To leave my father’s dwelling, his houses and free land;”

History and Etymology for Life of Riley

There is no exact story of the history of living the life of Riley, although it is clear that the phrase has Anglo-Irish origins. Some believe that it comes from a real person named Willy Reily from Sligo, Ireland.

Living the life of Riley is an American phrase that first showed up in the early 1900s. It was from a New Jersey newspaper, The News, saying, “Henry Mungersdorf is living the life of Riley just at present.”

There were no quotation marks to imply the unfamiliarity of the expression. That means the life of Riley might have already been popular among New Jersey people during that time. 

Although Mister Reilly was Irish, the country of origin for the phrase is the USA. It also explains why there were more Rileys in New York than in Dublin.  

During the War

After a few years, Sergeant Leonard used the phrase, saying “…that he and his pals were “living the life of Reilly.” The idiom then became more popular in the military during World War I. 

Several Victorian music-hall songs referred to a Reilly who was living a life of luxury. An example is the 1883 popular song by Pat Rooney, Is That Mr. Reilly?. Most of the compositions in the era were Irish songs.

Other Songs

Another famous song, The Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly was sung by George Gaskin. The singer of the Irish/American song was known for being the “Silver-Voiced Irish Tenor”. 

Other Uses  

Riley was originally spelled Reilly. Oxford English Dictionary now only recognizes Riley in living the life of Riley. During World War I, it spread across American training camps as British soldiers wrote home using the phrase. 

By the 1940, the term living the life of Riley was popular enough to be used as the title of the comedy series The Life of Riley. It was initially a popular radio comedy radio series. The famous series hit the charts that it was adapted into a feature film in 1949. 

After the American comedy film, The Life of Riley became an American television series in the 1950s. The phrase was still common in the 2000s, appearing in the A-Bones Life’s album. 

There are many other films with the same title. The Life of Reilly is also a film adaptation of the play, Save it for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. It’s a one-man play by Charles Nelson Reilly which was first performed in July 2000. 

Alan Ayckbourn’s Life of Riley also became a well-known play in 2010. It was later on adapted into a French film directed by Alain Resnais. 

In 2016, Phil Riley wrote a book, The Life of Riley: Mastering the five secret habits to enjoy a longer and healthier life. He promotes healthy life choices while discussing the life expectancy of the UK population. He also discussed that many die early due to poor life choices.

How to Use Life of Riley in a Sentence

Most of that was Malaysian taxpayers’ money and it was used to buy artworks and fancy real estate, make a movie, and generally allow its youthful directors to lead the life of Riley. (The Myanmar Times)

Murderer Cameron Mansell is “living the life of Riley” with ready access to a computer and television as a medium security prisoner while withholding the location of his victim’s body, according to the dead man’s father Laurie Puddy. (The West Australian)

By contrast, the similarly aged, similarly divorced and similarly dating George Clooney was depicted as a merry bachelor living the life of Riley. (The Guardian)

Shameless: Meet the shoplifter mum who lives the life of riley paid for by YOU (The Daily Express)

  • Anna lived the life of Riley at a young age because of her parents’ sudden wealth from their business. 
  • English soldiers work hard all day while everyone else is living the life of Riley. 
  • They say politicians should not be living the life of Riley to avoid criticism from people.

Life of Riley Synonyms

Here are some synonyms and terms related with living the life of Riley.

  • Contentment. 
  • Ease.
  • Gravy-train.
  • Prosperity. 
  • Satisfaction.

The Life of Riley Summarized

The origin of the strange phrase, living the life of Riley, is a popular ballad in the 1800s. It may also be a life reference to an Irish man named Wiley Reily. 

Right now, the phrase is a popular idiomatic expression that refers to a comfortable and luxurious life. Are you living the life of Riley? Would you like to learn about more idiomatic expressions to use in your writing? Here’s our breakdown of a chip off the old block.

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