THE school clothes were laid out, carefully ironed, by the bed.
Anthony Ward's new schoolbag was in the hallway, ready for his first day in second class at Newtownshandrum National School.
But what should have been a joyful reunion with school friends was yesterday transformed into a day of unrelenting tragedy as a tight-knit north Cork community mourned the loss of a happy-go-lucky eight-year-old.
Anthony was discovered lying dead in the bedroom of his home at Harrison's Court, less than 1km from Charleville town centre. He is suspected to have died from suffocation.
Just three weeks ago, Anthony proudly celebrated his eighth birthday -- with a neighbour, Tara Hanley, making a special cake for him in the shape of a horse.
The birthday party -- complete with bouncy castle -- attracted scores of youngsters from across the quiet community, with Anthony described as well-liked by everyone.
Anthony's mother, Diane, was last night being treated in Cork University Hospital (CUH) for trauma over her son's death.
Yesterday, Anthony's dog ran repeatedly across the front lawn and yelped at the locked gate, now closed with garda security tape.
Some of Anthony's toys lay by the side of the lawn where they had been carefully placed on Sunday evening as he enjoyed the sunshine and his last evening before his first day back at school.
Anthony's devoted father, Mark Ryan, maintained a heartbreaking vigil by a wall outside the front gate of his son's home through-out the day yesterday.
The house was sealed off by gardai as they awaited the arrival of a technical team and Assistant State Pathologist Margaret Bolster.
Friends and members of the Ward family embraced Mr Ryan as the cortege of garda technical officers and Dr Bolster swept into the driveway at 4.15pm.
Every so often Mr Ryan would bury his head in his hands and cry.
Neighbours walked over to him and shook his hand, embraced him or simply shook their heads in disbelief.
Others came over with cups of tea, trays of sandwiches and offers of private areas to rest and wait for the removal of his son's body to Cork University Hospital.
Friends warned reporters away -- protective of a man going through every parent's worst nightmare.
Anthony lived in a tight-knit community with two uncles and his grandparents located less than 100 metres from the front door of his home.
Neighbours said they cannot believe they won't see Anthony tearing up the road on his favourite bike and go-cart.
"Every time I saw him he had a smile on his face -- he was a beautiful child. An absolute dote -- his bike was actually a bit too big for him but that didn't stop Anthony," Liam Shine said.
Pupils at Anthony's school were unaware of the tragedy yesterday morning with principal Carmel Walmsley asking the media to allow teachers and parents to break the news to the youngsters as gently as possible.
In Charleville town, there was a sense of disbelief over what had happened. "You see these things on TV or in the papers, but you don't ever believe that they will happen on your own doorstep. Our hearts go out to the poor families involved," one man said.