life of Riley

The life of Riley (or Reilly) is a life of indolent pleasure. But who was Riley and why did he get to live such a life?

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. We are having fine eats, are in a great detachment and the experience one gets is fine. I must say I enjoy it immensely. It sure has some advantages over the undertaking business.”

From the quote, it’s obvious that this was a catchphrase common in the Army, or at least at Fort Dix, New Jersey where Kennedy was posted.

The next year, Harry Pease penned the song My Name is Kelly which included the lyric:

Faith and my name is Kelly Michael Kelly, But I’m living the life of Reilly just the same.

Pease’s song probably did much to popularize the phrase to a wider audience and perpetuate it over the years.

There were several Victorian-era songs that featured characters named Riley or O’Reilly who lived the good life, notably the 1883 Is That You Mr. Riley by Pat Rooney and The Best in the House Is None Too Good for Reilly, popularly c.1900. These may be the inspiration for the character of that name, but the phrase life of Riley/Reilly does not appear in the lyrics.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; American Speech, Vol. 51, No. 1/2, Spring-Summer, 1976; NewspaperArchive.com)

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