Around St. Patrick’s Day each year, many people like to claim that they have a wee bit O’ Irishness coursing through their veins. Well, it certainly is no secret that “Riley” is a very Irish name.
Family legend has it that my ancestors fled Antrim County in Northern Ireland sometime around 1700. Their migration to America was probably caused by the laws that had been passed by the English to force the Irish to join the Church of England. Known as the Penal Laws, these laws prohibited Irish Catholics from holding public office, voting, owning firearms, marrying outside of their religion and owning property.
Rather than suffer the oppression of English rule, I like to think that one of my ancestors might have shouted, “We will not live like this. We will live free.” So, they moved to America.
After weeks at sea, we are told that they landed at the Baltimore harbor. At some point, after getting to America, my ancestors dropped a vowel, a consonant and the O’ and started spelling their name Riley. From Baltimore, they moved to the wilderness of Virginia where they lived a difficult life in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains.
There are records of a family named Riley joining Daniel Boone shortly after he blazed the trail through the Cumberland Gap. The Rileys didn’t travel much farther into the wilderness. They apparently found eastern Kentucky to their liking and settled in Breathitt County. Over a hundred years and several generations later, my grandfather moved his family to southern Indiana.
I love the name Riley. Like most people of Irish descent, I’m proud of my Irishness, especially around St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish have a well-earned reputation of being outgoing, storytelling, hard-drinking, fun loving scoundrels. I also love the sound of the word “scoundrel.”
It’s very well known that the Irish have a well-earned reputation for telling jokes, stories and yarns. There is even a legend about how the Irish became such prolific speakers and storytellers.
In County Cork, in the southern part of Ireland, sits Blarney Castle. Tucked away beneath the battlement at the top of the castle is the Blarney Stone. I’ve been there. After climbing a damp, narrow, corkscrew set of stairs, we reached the battlement of the castle. To kiss the magical stone, I had to lie on my back and lower myself (with help) upside-down and backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone.
It is said that the Blarney Stone is made from the same stones used to build Stonehenge. Stories and legends abound about how this large rock became part of the Blarney Castle. It is reported to have been used by the Scots as a seat for their king.
Blarney legend tells us that Israeli King David used the stone as a hiding place while running from King Saul. Moses is said to have struck the stone with his staff to provide water for the Israelites. Jacob is said to have used the stone as a pillow and Jeremiah later brought the large stone to Ireland.
Most of these legends are hard to believe, but they all boil down to the Blarney Stone bestowing mystic powers on anyone who kisses it. The “power” that is bestowed on the kisser is the gift of eloquence, flattery and clever or coaxing speech that is filled with good humor.
For this reason, anyone with a pronounced “gift of gab” is said to be full of Blarney. I’m not sure about that, but I do believe that my fellow Irishmen sincerely enjoy a good story or joke, a hearty laugh and a healthy sip of Irish whiskey.
It should be noted that most of the world spells the word as whisky, but the Irish insert an “e.” The origin of the letter “e” is said to come from the image of a person standing with both arms raised in celebration — like someone who just tasted an excellent Irish whiskey.
I have a distant uncle who got the job of his dreams when he was hired to work at the Jameson distillery in Dublin. Things were going great for him. He loved the work and the fact that all employees were allowed a healthy sip at the end of each workday.
Then came the day of the horrible industrial accident.
Uncle Sean slipped and fell into a huge vat of whiskey. He drowned. Well, to be honest he didn’t drown immediately. He got out twice to pee, but eventually, he did drown. Now, that’s a good Irishman.
Having reached the end of this column, I need to remind the reader that I did indeed kiss the Blarney Stone. Believe what you have read or label it Blarney.
Regardless, I hope you had a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day.
Erin go bragh (Ireland forever).
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and a local resident of more than 40 years.