Life of Riley
Posted: 08 January 2009 11:57 PM   [ Ignore ]
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From The Big List:

The earliest known use of the phrase is when Private Walter J. Kennedy wrote about about his life in the Army in The Syracuse Herald, 29 July 1918:

“This is surely one great life,” writes Kennedy. “We call it the life of Riley.

Does anyone know who Riley was?  And was the phrase popular in the British Army at the same time?

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Posted: 09 January 2009 03:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Pease, the writer of the 1919 song also mentioned in the Big List was British (according to Quinion) which suggests the phrase was familiar in civilian UK so probably in the British Army as well.

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Posted: 09 January 2009 06:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I think it likely that Riley was a stock character from songs and music (not unlike Mr. Jones, made famous by Bob Dylan and used in songs by many others afterward). He was probably never a real person.

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Posted: 09 January 2009 09:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Edited out info which is already there in the Big List. (That’ll teach me to check first!)

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Posted: 10 January 2009 04:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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There is an earlier cite, found by Fred Shapiro, from 1911

http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0611C&L=ADS-L&P=R4825

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Posted: 10 January 2009 05:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Never mind Riley, I want to hear more about this “famous wild cow of Cromwell”!

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Posted: 11 January 2009 06:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I googled “life of Reilly” and found this poem, The Tale of Willy Reilly published in 1856, a story well-known in Ireland and probably also to Irish emigrants.  Willy Reilly wooed and won a Protestant heiress, Coleen Bawn, the daughter of a Protestant persecutor.  Reilly was imprisoned but released because of her testimony.  It’s “a tale, founded upon fact” (apparently) and gave rise to many a bawdy song in Ireland - all now sadly gone.  Willy Reilly and his Coleen married and emigrated to the States where they lived well enough to bring up several sons.  Could this be my Riley?

Before you all start shouting about the obvious, I know the sense of “life of Reilly” in the poem doesn’t match the ease and indolence suggested by the modern phrase, but it’s interesting speculation.  Or maybe you don’t think it is.  I may stand corrected on this.

Nothing more, however, about Dr Techie’s cow.  Trawling through Connecticut livestock magazines to find reports of errant bovines isn’t my preferred way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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Posted: 11 January 2009 01:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Seems like a possibility.  Thirty-five thousand pounds (the sum given by the woman’s father to the couple at the end of the tale) would certainly set them up in comfort and ease in the 1850s.

But wouldn’t “the Continent” (which is where the tale says they moved to) mean Europe rather than the States?

Edit: The story was apparently made into a movie in 1918. (But the phrase was apparently already established at that point, based on information presented above.)

[ Edited: 11 January 2009 02:34 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 12 January 2009 09:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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But wouldn’t “the Continent” (which is where the tale says they moved to) mean Europe rather than the States?

Without a doubt.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen “the Continent” used to refer to the States—certainly not from the point of view of England.

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Posted: 12 January 2009 09:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Googling “wild cow of Cromwell” turns up only the already-quoted newspaper citation in the context of discussing the phrase “life of Riley”.  Once she was famous, but now virtually forgotten.

Sic transit gloria moondi.

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Posted: 12 January 2009 10:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Until now, that is.

OK, so it’s Europe, not the States, but still the point is (as I said earlier) that a legend and a ballad well-known to the Irish could easily have made its way across the Atlantic.  It might not have, but it sounds plausible. 
(Trying to cover all bases here to avoid unnecessary sniping).

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Posted: 12 January 2009 11:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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BTW, this useful site can be used to convert the value of the British pound between various times in history.  According to it, £35,000 in 1856 would have the buying power of about two million pounds today, or, compared on the basis of annual income, would be equivalent to over twenty million pounds today. (To be hypercorrect, for “today” read “in 2007”.)

Either way, I think that someone who received that amount as a gift could be said to be living the life of Riley.

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Posted: 12 January 2009 01:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I can’t resist the old (apocryphal?) headline.

Thick fog in Channel. Continent cut off.

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