Q From Jim Chapin: What is the origin of the phrase, life of Riley (or Reilly)?
A Oh, dear. The experts have been struggling with this one for decades but can’t agree on who Riley might have been or how he managed to achieve his enviable existence of comfort and ease. He (that much is assumed) was certainly fictional but competing theories argue that he might have been either American or British. They can’t even agree whether he was Riley or Reilly (or even sometimes O’Reilly). However, the finger of suspicion points most clearly to popular music.
William and Mary Morris suggested in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origin that the origin lies in a once-famous American comic song:
Is that Mister Reilly, can anyone tell?
Is that Mister Reilly that owns the hotel?
Well, if that’s Mister Reilly they speak of so highly,
Upon me soul, Riley, you’re doing quite well.
Written in 1883 by Pat Rooney, a well-known vaudeville comedian, singer and Irish impersonator. The hero, an innkeeper, describes what he will do when he strikes it rich: “New York will be swimming in wine” and “A hundred a day will be very small pay / when the White House and Capitol are mine.” The indications are that it became popular very quickly. The lyric was quoted in The New York Times on 29 January 1884 as a sarcastic comment about how difficult it was to find out the extent to which the city registrar, John Reilly, had profited from his office. In December the same year the Philadelphia Record used it in referring to a New York police captain, also with the same surname, who was supposedly (and surprisingly) untouched by a city financial scandal.
Other musical compositions have been suggested. It has been said that there was one of 1890 performed by the well-known burlesque performers Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart. I’ve only been able to trace their play of that year, Reilly and the Four Hundred, and the supposed link is probably a mistake based on the title. Another version put forward (by H L Mencken) is The Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly, by Charles E Lawlor and James W Blake. I don’t have its date, but it was certainly written after their first and most famous song, The Sidewalks of New York, whose words Blake knocked out in an hour on the counter of the hat shop where he was working as a clerk in 1894.
Pat Rooney’s song was revived during the First World War:
The song heard just now wherever the Tommies are gathered together is nothing else than our old favorite, “Is This Mr. Reilly They Speak of So Highly. Is This Mr. Reilly That Keeps the Hotel?” Several months ago it became a craze with the English soldiers.
The Star And Sentinel, Gettysburg, 1 October 1915. The newspaper said that the song had quite displaced It’s a Long Way to Tipperary as the soldiers’ favourite. British publishers in search of the rights, it reported, were surprised to discover that it was actually American. How it got into the trenches of northern France one can only guess.
A problem is that the expression living the life of Reilly doesn’t appear in either the Rooney or the Lawlor-Blake lyric. However, they certainly put the idea in people’s heads of a link between the surname and the leisured lifestyle of a very rich man.
The first known examples of the phrase are American and strongly suggest that it started life in the US Army around the time America entered the First World War in 1917. Small-town newspapers frequently published letters sent home by soldiers from training camps in the US and from active service in France. Many of them remarked on this strange expression they’d never heard before:
Besides the Polish troops there are a few quartermaster’s corps men and two companies of regulars here for guard duty. In addition there are about 43 medical men and we live like princes or, as they say here, “the life of Riley.” We get wonderful “eats” and have the best pass privileges of any men at the post.
Lowell Sun, Massachusetts, 16 January 1918. This is an extract from a letter home by private Robert D Ward, who was on the medical staff at Fort Niagara, New York state.
The best time we had was the morning after when we occupied cities formerly held by the Huns. They must have led the life of Reilly as we caught them all asleep in beds and it was quite a sight to see our boys chasing them around in their pajamas — the German officers’ pajamas, not our boys’.
Bridgeport Telegram, Connecticut, 22 October 1918.
In Britain, it is often claimed that the expression is of Anglo-Irish origins, based on a music-hall song of the immediate postwar period, though the lyric is using the phrase in a way that suggests the audience was expected to recognise it:
Faith and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly,
But I’m living the life of Reilly just the same.
My Name is Kelly, written by Harry Pease in 1919.
Putting all this together, the most likely sequence is that at some point around the time of America’s entry into the First World War the expression was either created among troops in the US Army or was a previously locally known expression that was spread and popularised by contacts within Army camps. Either way it echoed Rooney’s vaudeville song. It was then taken to France, was picked up by British soldiers who had been exposed to Rooney’s song earlier in the war, who took it into civvy street, where Harry Pease picked it up.