What does Life of Riley mean?
Life of Riley is a colloquial expression, widely known in the Anglosphere to refer to a comfortable and lavish way of living.
It appears in a wide range of contexts, as many works of art have chosen the “Life of Riley” as their theme of preference, with countless songs, ballads and plays named after the topic.
What's the origin of Life of Riley?
It is not clear, whether a real-life Riley, living an extravagant life existed or not.
The most likely source for the expression is a popular Irish folk ballad about a Willy Reilly from Sligo, Ireland, which first appeared in print in the Dublin Weekly Nation on October 14th, 1899.
Although the article, including it claims it to originate it from the 1820’s, the story is possibly even older, dating back to the 1700’s.
The story tells of a forbidden love between Reilly and a noble’s daughter, which ends in the hero getting the hand and the dowry of the lady, enabling him to live the “Life of Riley”.
There is also a book about the character, published by William Carleton in 1855, under the title Willy Reilly.
Spread & Usage
How did Life of Riley spread?
The arrival of the Irish immigrants to the Americas during the 19th century led to the rapid spread of the story of Riley, appearing in vaudeville songs by the 1880’s, with the most popular being “Is That Mr. Reilly?” by Pat Rooney.
The first appearance of the phrase “Life of Riley” in its aforementioned sense was published in the New Jersey newspaper titled “The News” in 1910.
It gained further popularity during World War 1, when Sergeant Leonard A. Monzert had a letter published by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 26th, 1818, where he wrote him, and his soldiers were “living the life of Reilly”.
This excerpt further popularized the phrase among soldiers and their families back in the states.
“Life of Riley” became a title for a radio series in the 1940’s and a television comedy series in the 1950’s.
Since then, countless movies, songs and albums have been named “Life of Riley”, with recent examples appearing in the 2010’s as well.
“Life of Riley” was first defined on Urban Dictionary on July 8th, 2014.