The Life of Reilly


On the drive home from picking up our puppy, my son Liam and I tossed around a few names for our newest family member. Liam liked the name Einstein and I was partial to some super-macho name that escapes me now (it was probably something like Thor or Spartacus). At one point, I said to Liam, “Mom likes the name Reilly.” The discussion continued for most of the ride home and, the more we talked about it, the more we both felt that the name Reilly fit.

We weren’t really sure why the name fit so well. What we did know was that we were immediately attached to this little puppy. Liam loved the dog instantly. My wife and I had an engagement the day after Reilly came home and Liam agreed to stay with the dog for the day. He dusted off our camera and took about forty pictures of his new puppy that day. Our eldest son Adam thought the dog was sweet at first and then grew to appreciate the dog more and more as the days passed. He liked the way the little puppy would chase a toy, smash into the coffee table, blink in obvious pain, and then recover in time to bring the toy back to him. And Sharon, who kind of dreaded the idea of another dog because of the perpetual fur-ball tumbleweed that rolled through our house from our last dog, took a fairly instant liking to the dog as well. Like Adam, she thought the dog was sweet and, as soon as she could see that this dog was not going to shed, she really gave her affection to the pup.

Thus, the deck was stacked to give Reilly a hell of a good life. In fact, he was in a position to ‘live the life of Reilly.’ What does that mean anyway? Guess what, I’m going to tell you.

Because I’m a nerd (more on that in a future post), I needed to know the significance of the name Reilly and what it actually meant to ‘live the life of Reilly.’ So I did what everybody does when they don’t know something: I GOOGLED IT. Here’s what I discovered.

First of all, the name Reilly* is rooted in Irish ancestry. There are two versions of a famous Irish legend (usually associated with the O’Neil clan but sometimes – probably mistakenly – associated with the O’Reilly clan) that proves relevant to our investigation. The first involves Viking invaders sailing toward Ireland. The Viking leader says to his men, “The first man to touch the land will have his pick of the country.” The men make haste in their boats and one man, probably a guy named O’Neil but maybe a guy named O’Reilly, is pretty sure he is going to lose the race. In desperation, he cuts off his hand and throws it onto the shore ahead of his rivals and wins the race. The second version of the story involves two sons sent by their father from Scotland to Ireland. The same promise is made: the first one there gets their pick of the land. One of the sons falls behind but wins the race by chopping off his hand and throwing it on shore.


I was relieved to note that my research, while revealing a bleeding or blood red hand in the coat of arms of each clan, linked the hand-chopping business to the O’Neil’s. Thank God we didn’t name our puppy after a clan that prided itself on self-mutilation. Though the blood dripping hand from the Reilly coat of arms was still cause for some concern.

As I delved deeper into the Reilly name, I tried to discover the roots of the expression “Living the Life of Reilly.” Most historians say that the expression surfaced among Irish-Americans around 1900. Others claim that the expression goes back much further. The Reilly’s were among the first fifteen Irish clans to emerge on the island. Their prominence grew with one Reilly dynasty minting their own coins. The Reilly coins were so valuable that they were accepted as currency in England and led to the emergence of the expression, “Living on his Reilly’s” and, eventually, “Living the life of Reilly.” Both expressions suggested that someone is living the high life or that their life is very, very, very comfortable.

Over time the expression survived and, at the turn of the last century, became a common way of saying, ‘That person’s got a good life.’ It popped up in a couple of popular songs and  eventually surfaced as a title for a radio series, a couple of TV series, and a movie.

Life of Riley

So what does any of this have to do with my dog? Well, I am not exactly sure. I know that names carry meaning and meaning affects attitudes. Maybe by naming our dog Reilly we were unwittingly tapping into the machismo of the bloody hand myth (even though the story is more rooted in the O’Neil tradition) as well as the enjoyment one gets in watching a dog live life on his own terms. Or maybe the name is a simple expression of our luck in getting a dog that gives us a laugh every day.

Then again, maybe living the life of Reilly is really about how a dog can transform and improve our lives. To highlight this idea, a very recent story springs to mind. Just last week, Sharon came home after a very tough day at work. She was zapped of energy and, head held low, slogged her way upstairs change her clothes. Reilly followed. I was cooking dinner in the kitchen when I heard the ‘thump, thump, thump.’ Sharon was chasing Reilly around upstairs. This went on for a good five minutes before an out-of-breath Sharon said, “Okay, that’s enough.” The two of them trotted downstairs; Reilly very pleased with himself and Sharon, grinning from ear to ear, much less stressed.

Maybe ‘the life of Reilly’ isn’t just about having the easy life. Maybe its about living a better life through the experiences we are lucky enough to have. And maybe a little dog (or a big dog) can help enhance the way we experience life.

Maybe by living our lives with Reilly we are actually ‘living the life of Reilly.’

*The most common spellings of the name Reilly are REILLY and RILEY (the Anglicized version of Reilly). Sometimes you’ll see O’Reilly with the ‘O’ meaning ‘of’ as in ‘of the Reilly clan.’

This entry was posted in Walking With Reilly. Bookmark the permalink.